Plaza Cafe Southside – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Plaza Cafe Southside

Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant (circa 1918), the Plaza Cafe is so popular that long waits to be seated are commonplace. Compound that with the hassle of trying to find a parking spot that isn’t a marathon’s length to walk to and from the Cafe then having to navigate through throngs of awestruck tourists and it’s a restaurant we don’t visit as often as we’d like.  Our visits might become even more infrequent thanks to the 2003 launch of the Plaza Cafe’s sister restaurant (albeit a sister that’s 84 years younger) on Santa Fe’s south side.

Neon Spangled Interior Festooned with Colorful Art

The Plaza Cafe Southside, situated in San Isidro Plaza on Zafarano Drive, is a welcome respite from the challenges inherent with trying to dine in the teeming tourist traversed Plaza area. It’s one of an increasing number of excellent restaurants situated well outside Santa Fe’s well beaten, well eatin’ Plaza area.  It’s also one of several very good restaurants within easy walking distance of the Regal Cinemas 14.  It’s the Plaza Cafe Southside’s second home.  For its first six years, the Cafe occupied cozy, but cramped confines within a motel off Cerrillos.

You Can’t Help But Smile

The Plaza Cafe Southside is the brainchild of Leonard Razatos who “wanted to bring a little of the old Santa Fe to the new Santa Fe.” A “new” Santa Fe can certainly describe the burgeoning south side which has shown tremendous growth over the past decade. “Old” Santa Fe begins and ends with the famous Santa Fe Plaza, fittingly home to the Plaza Cafe, the city’s oldest restaurant. In 1947, Greek immigrant Dionysi “Danny” Razatos, purchased the restaurant and together with his wife and six children has fed Santa Fe ever since. Leonard upholds the family tradition within the trappings of a modern edifice which might not work well in the architectural restricted plaza area.

Karen Webb, One of Santa Fe’s Most Famous (And Beloved) Waitresses

Where the Cafe’s first digs were cramped and cozy, its new home is capacious and comfortable. Despite the modernity of high ceilings, industrial-style ductwork and steel girders, the Cafe retains the appearance of an old-fashioned diner. Undulating neon festoons the service area where an industrious wait staff delivers and picks up orders. Suspended from the ceiling is a colorful four-sided mural depicting the culture of Santa Fe, not so much in an idyllic fashion, but in a mode which might best describe the things that make it the “City Different.” The bar soffit mural painted by local artist Robb Rael depicts the Zozobra, skeletal images from el Dia de los Muertos, pueblo-style architectural homes and more, all in the artist’s unique interpretive style. It, too, is festooned by 1950s style neon.

The first thing you notice when you walk in to the Plaza Cafe Southside is a dessert case that’s wider than it is tall. Behind glass are some of the most sumptuous, calorie-laden confections ever crafted. It’s a wonder there aren’t tongue trails on the glass because behind it, just waiting for hungry diners, are the Plaza Cafe’s famous cajeta apple pecan pie, served in huge slabs with or without ice cream. There’s also the fabulous coconut cream pie (in a macaroon shell), pastel tres leches and other mouth-watering desserts.

In The Event of An Emergency

Step into the restaurant on a lazy Sunday morning and it’s a good bet you’ll be cheerfully greeted by Karen Webb, one of the city’s most famous and beloved hostesses. Karen gained a modicum of fame on the terrific documentary American Waitresses: New Mexico, a feature film that examines the lives, attitudes, perceptions and experiences of waitresses. Karen came across as the very effusive and warm soul she is. A mainstay at the Plaza Cafe Southside, she greets guests with an endearing “darling” or “baby,” eliciting hearty hugs from many of them. She’s a true ambassador for the Cafe, pointing out the historical photographs on the wall and inviting guests to make themselves at home. When I asked if I could photograph her, she joked with another guest about “posing for a nudie.”

The Dessert Case

Their classic American diner showcases traditional cooking methods and time-honored ingredients that would make many a New Mexican abuelita proud indeed.  In addition to excellent New Mexican  and Mexican food, the restaurant features a few Greek entrees as well as American diner favorites and blue-plate specials.  The menu is a veritable compendium of home-style diner cuisine New Mexico style with something for everyone.  Some time-honored recipes have been “improved upon” with inventive ingredients in exciting combinations.  Other recipes haven’t been “tampered” with and might remind you of the home cooking you got at home as a child. 

Peruse the menu and quality-conscious diners will certainly appreciate reading “A Few Things We’re Proud of.”   “We use local New Mexico heritage ranch, grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef.  We use only cage-free eggs.  We bake all our pastries and desserts from scratch daily using only the highest quality ingredients.  All our breads are from scratch using only the highest quality ingredients.  Our corn and flour tortillas are from a local tortillera and are free of preservatives and artificial ingredients.”  How can you not love that if you care about quality?

Three salsas with red, yellow and blue corn chips

Three salsas with red, yellow and blue corn chips

The Southside Cafe shares most of the same menu with its sister restaurant. There are a few notable exceptions, one being the absence of the elder sibling’s roasted garlic and carnitas quesadillas, an appetizer for which you’d brave the teeming throngs.  Similar to the Plaza Cafe, the Southside Cafe features oversized plastic menus emblazoned with a round image of the heavily trafficked Santa Fe plaza at the height of bustling activity. The menu is several pages long and reads like a great novel; it’s very hard to put down and even harder to make a decision as to what to order.

That menu includes several “aguas frescas,” the refreshing at any time beverages becoming increasingly popular in New Mexico. The Cafe has its own interesting twists on traditional aguas frescas.  That includes a prickly pear lemonade made with tangy prickly pear puree and even prickly pear horchata, an exotic blend of almond, cinnamon and rice water with tangy prickly pear puree. The latter is an interesting departure from what can be a cloying beverage and will amaze you at how well two unique flavors meld together.  For those cold mornings in which your belly needs some anti-freeze, the Ibarra Mexican hot chocolate has your number.  It’s a strong hot chocolate with a rich flavor.

Side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing

Side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing

The appetizer section features New Mexican, Mexican, Greek and American options.  If in the mood for something Greek, hummus and pita are available. The hummus, a puree of tahini, lemon, garlic, onion and garbanzo beans is oh so garlicky delicious. This terrific appetizer is served with warm pita bread.  Typical of the surprising inventiveness of the menu is the fried calamari with jalapeños, tender calamari dusted with flour, flash-fried and garnished with salt, pepper and jalapeños then served with a habanero dipping sauce that’s positively piquant.

28 July 2007: If a more traditional Mexican appetizer is what you’re after,  the Cafe’s housemade blue, yellow and red corn tortilla chips and three salsas (Chipotle, tomatillo and pico de gallo) is a terrific triumvirate. All three salsas are sensational and all have capsaicin enriched potency (translation: they bite back). The Chipotle salsa has a wonderfully smoky taste and is perhaps the most piquant of the three. It may also be the most addicting and will probably be the first one you finish. Guacamole and chips are also available as is a mountainous plate of nachos (tortilla chips, beans, chipotle salsa, chile con queso, chorizo, jalapeños, lettuce and tomato).

Cilantro Salmon with Tomato Habanero Lasagna

Cilantro Salmon with Tomato Habanero Lasagna

28 July 2007: The “Specials” section includes several items in which the chef’s artistic interpretations crossed into the realm of non-traditional mixing of cultures. That would apply to the Cilantro Salmon with Tomato-Habañero lasagna.  The salmon filet is entree sized in and of itself. It’s a flame-grilled six-ounce slab of salmon marinated in garlic, cilantro and olive oil. It is fork-tender and surprisingly moist as well as imbued with discernable smokiness courtesy of the grill.  See the word “Habañero” attached to any entree and you’re bound to think incendiary, pain-inducing, eye-watering, mouth-scalding, too hot to handle, torturous pepper.

At the Cafe, the Tomato-Habañero Lasagna is surprisingly scaled down heat-wise. In fact, the hotter-than-Hell pepper’s most discernable quality is the fruitiness with which it imbues the lasagna. It complements the acidic tomatoes and rich ricotta cheese very well. This is an excellent lasagna.  As with other Italian inspired entrees at the Cafe, the tomato sauce is applied lightly so that it ameliorates, not dominates, the flavor profile.  The sauce has a flavor quite like fresh tomatoes seasoned with garlic and basil.  It’s an excellent sauce for lasagna or any other Italian pasta.

New Mexico Meatloaf, a specialty of the house

New Mexico Meatloaf, a specialty of the house

28 July 2007: What best defines comfort food?  Many surveys will tell you it’s meatloaf and that just happens to be the Cafe’s specialty. Appropriately, it used to be found on the menu’s Blue Plate section; now it’s  the special of the day on Tuesdays. This isn’t your mama’s meatloaf, unless you’re from New Mexico. This is New Mexico meatloaf stuffed with vegetables (sweet corn nibblets stand out), cheese and green chile.  Unlike the meatloaf at many a diner, the Cafe’s version doesn’t have that annoying crust you have to cut through to get to the moist part. This is one of the most moist meatloaves you’ll find anywhere…and the green chile, vegetable and cheese combination imbues it with qualities that render it sublime. The meatloaf is served with mashed potatoes and gravy as well as sautéed broccoli and carrots.

23 January 2011: From the blue-plate special comes a spaghetti and meatballs entree which might have you saying “That’s amore!” with every bite.  It’s the Plaza Cafe’s spaghetti with meatballs served with a tomato-marjoram sauce, bacon and Parmesan cheese.  Bacon, as everyone knows, makes everything better and the Cafe’s menu boasts of “Santa Fe’s best bacon.”  You won’t find bacon in every bite, but oh those spoonfuls blessed with bacon are special.  The tomato-marjoram sauce is light and thin, emphasizing the flavor of tomatoes and not some thick tomato paste.  Marjoram, by the way, is a member of the oregano-mint family.  It’s similar to oregano, but somewhat milder.  The spaghetti noodles are perfectly al dente.

Spaghetti & Meatballs with Bacon Tomato Sauce: Meatballs, tomato-marjoram sauce, spaghetti, bacon + parmesan cheese, grilled focaccia

23 January 2011: Yet another blue plate special which takes off where ordinary fish and chips leave off is a spicy rendition made from beer-battered cod served with a habanero tartar sauce and jalapeño malt vinegar.  It’s the type of fish and chips the irascible Captain Quint from the movie Jaws would eat while daring the scholarly Matt Hooper to follow suit.   Just as the two tried to out-macho one another by showing off their “battle” scars, it’s easy to imagine the two dousing their beer-battered cod filets in the jalapeño malt vinegar then chasing them down with the habanero tartar sauce all the while daring the other to spice it up even more.

To be honest, neither the jalapeño malt vinegar nor the habanero tartar sauce are that piquant, but it makes for a good story to tell.  It also makes for a very good, very different fish and chips dish.  The cod filets are light and flaky with a beer-batter that’s light enough to allow the superb malt vinegar to impregnate the filets with a terrific tartness.  The “chips” are red chile fries, actually just fries lightly dusted with red chile.  They’re great fries.  Instead of some insipid salad cream, the slaw is made with an apple cider vinegar-like sauce that makes the slaw lip-pursing tangy.

Spicy Fish & Chips: beer-battered cod fillet with habanero tartar sauce, jalapeño malt vinegar and red chile fries, slaw

28 July 2007: For just a pittance, you can add a dinner salad to any entree. As is the case with every item on the menu, this isn’t a blasé and boring salad. It’s mixed greens, strips of jicama, julienne carrots, wedges of tomato, garbanzo beans and more. Ask for the citrus vinaigrette to enliven the salad even further.  If a satisfying salad is what you crave for your entree, consider the menu’s six salads which include a Greek Chicken Souvlaki salad and an inspired Middle Eastern salad (mixed greens, roasted beets and carrots, red cabbage, toasted almonds, cumin seeds, hummus, falafel, pita bread served with a cumin-lemon vinaigrette).

It may be entirely possible that breakfast, served day and night, is even better than lunch and dinner. The menu lists five early morning themes–eggs & omelets, pancakes & French toast, breakfast specialties, bakeshop offerings and platos nativos–and it will be a challenge to figure out what eye-opening entree to have.  One certainty is the thick-cut, sugar-cured bacon which surely must be the best bacon in Santa Fe.  It’s a must have.

Blue corn enchiladas Christmas style

Blue corn enchiladas Christmas style

5 August 2007: The platos nativos (native plates) section features traditional New Mexican entrees such as blue corn enchiladas. Layers of blue corn tortillas, Cheddar cheese and eggs are slathered with the Plaza Cafe’s dark red chile and served with hashed browns and beans.  Because the red and green chile are equally wonderful, ask for your enchiladas “Christmas” style and each mouthful will be a treat. Neither chile is mild.  Red and green chile are available at medium-hot or extra hot and if you’re not certain as to your tolerance level, ask for a sample or order your chile on the side.  The menu’s disclaimer reads “We cannot be responsible for chile that is too hot.” 

14 August 2016: For some strange reason, my Kim prefers her breakfast burritos “deconstructed,” that is with the tortilla on the side. She prefers folding bits of tortilla into “New Mexican spoons” and loading them up with the burrito’s constituents in the proportions and combinations she wants. Usually that means I inherit at least half the frijoles. Whether served the way New Mexico’s chile gods intended or deconstructed, the Plaza Cafe’s breakfast burritos are the bomb! Credit much of that to the piquancy and deliciousness of the chile. The green chile, in particular, not only bites back but has a fruitiness that’ll open your eyes (and nasal passages).

Breakfast Tacos

A word about the hashed browns–they’re amazing! Most hashed browns look and taste like confetti, but not at the Plaza Cafe. These shredded tubers are prepared with onion and are just slightly crispy. Best of all, they actually taste like potatoes and not some paper derivative. You won’t leave any on your plate. The beans are also terrific.  They’re the type of means your abuelita might have prepared years ago. 

14 August 2016Breakfast tacos are oft-attempted, but rarely imbued with the eye-opening deliciousness you crave first thing in the morning.  Plaza Cafe Southside’s version are the best, by far, we’ve ever had.  Picture two soft corn tortillas engorged with scrambled eggs and calabasitas with your choice of meat (Santa Fe’s best bacon, of course) or veggie sausage as well as avocado, cheese, cilantro, onion, chipotle salsa and a side of pinto beans and hash browns.  Individual ingredients coalesce into a mouth-watering whole with several flavor stand-outs.   Among them are the al dente calabasitas, as fresh and delicious as you’ll find anywhere.  The chipotle salsa is so good we requested a second ramekin which we spooned directly into our eagerly awaiting mouths.   The accompanying frijoles, blanketed by molten white Cheddar, and hash browns are wonderful.

“Deconstructed” Breakfast Burrito

14 August 2016: For some reason my Kim prefers her breakfast burritos “deconstructed,” that is with the tortilla on the side.  She folds pieces of tortilla into “New Mexican spoons” into which she piles on the other ingredients in the proportions and combinations she wants (meaning fewer frijoles).  Whether in the form New Mexico’s culinary gods intended or deconstructed, the Plaza Cafe’s breakfast burrito is a paragon of deliciousness.  Credit much of that to an incendiary chile that’s not only piquant, but oh, so flavorful.  It’s impossible for me to chide her for her non-traditional approach to burritos because I usually inherit most of the beans on her plate.

5 August 2007: If your sweet tooth is acting up in the morning, the lemon ricotta pancakes will take care of it. Topped with fresh blueberries, these magnificent orbs are so sweet you might not even need syrup. An equal pronouncement of tanginess and sweetness make these pancakes dessert-like and absolutely delicious. The pancakes are available in quantities of one or two per order.  The Plaza’s pancake line-up also includes made-from-scratch buttermilk pancakes and blue corn pancakes with orange butter and cinnamon syrup.  It’s a terrific triumvirate.

Lemon ricotta pancakes

Lemon ricotta pancakes

14 August 2016: Perhaps better than the pancakes, amazing as they are, are the restaurant’s signature French toast made from a thick-cut crunchy coated (with Kellog’s Corn Flakes) Challah bread.  Challah bread, a traditional Hebrew bread makes the best French toast, especially when sliced thick.  It has a pillowy-soft texture and an rich, egg enhanced flavor.  Challah bread also absorbs syrup (or honey, if you prefer).  The French toast are served in half (pictured below) or full-sized portions.

Challah Bread French Toast

14 August 2016: No matter how good your entrees might be, you absolutely must save room for desserts.  Make that a lot of room.  The desserts are humongous!  The green chile apple pie with a Cheddar crust, for example, is a huge slab of pie with about seven layers of stacked apples.  The Cheddar crust bottom and the crunchy top crust provide textural and flavor contrasts.  Ask for the pie to be served warm and for a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side, an unbeatable combination.

The other apple pie dish, the one made famous at the original Plaza cafe, is topped with cajeta, a Mexican caramel made from goat’s and cow’s milk.  It’s fully addictive, a far better caramel than the squeeze bottle variety.  The pie, of course, is delicious with sweet-tart apples.  A la mode is the best way to experience it because the Plaza Cafe uses a premium vanilla ice cream in which flecks of vanilla bean are prominent.

Green Chile Apple Pie with a Cheddar Crust

The Plaza Cafe Southside Cafe is so good it should be considered a dining destination in its own right, not a consolation prize for not wanting to face the challenges of eating at the Plaza. A reasonable bill of fare, excellent food, accommodating service and almost as important, easy parking make this an excellent choice at any time.

Plaza Cafe Southside
3466 Zafarano Drive (San Isidro Plaza)
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 424-0755
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, New Mexico Meatloaf, Cilantro Salmon with Tomato-Habañero Lasagna, Prickly Pear Horchata, Mexican Hot Chocolate, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Challah French Toast, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Spicy Fish & Chips, Breakfast Tacos, Chipotle Salsa, “Deconstructed” Breakfast Burrito

Plaza Cafe Southside Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chez Mamou – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Chez Mamou on Palace Avenue in Santa Fe

When she asked me to repeat the name of the French restaurant where we were dining one slightly breezy Sunday morning, I knew my clever bride had something in mind.  Relaying that we were dining at Chez (pronounced “shay”) Mamou, she retorted “are you sure it’s not called “Shame on you.”  That was her reaction to a server having deposited a stale, probably older than day-old baguette on our table.  She followed up with “no self-respecting French restaurant, especially one claiming to be a bakery would serve bread baked by Napoleon’s baker.”  Whether or not the fossilized (her term) bread was indicative of Chez Mamou’s daily performance, it was enough to rile my usually saintly patient wife.

By this point, she had already dissed the coffee, an Allegro Coffee blend, which she found entirely too strong and “more bitter than supporters of England wanting to remain in the European Union.”   (In the interest of full-disclosure, she finds coffee too strong if it can’t be “cured” by five or six packets of Splenda.”)  She would later repeat her “what’s the name of this restaurant” comment while eating some of the restaurant’s highly-touted pastries and croissants, reputedly baked by a master baker (and I won’t repeat how she twisted that term). That, my friends, is why she leaves the reviewing to me…and lest you think she’s nit-picky, the only time she’s ever compromised on her exceedingly high standards is when she said “yes” to me.

Dining Room at Chez Mamou

You should certainly set your expectations high when visiting a restaurant as highly touted as Chez Mamou.  Never mind that it earned rave reviews from both the Albuquerque Journal and Santa Fe Reporter, where it really earned its creds with me is from a Facebook post by Daniela Bouneou, erstwhile owner of the fabulous  Torinos @ Home.  When Daniela posts about a restaurant, you’re well advised to heed her recommendation.  Chez Mamou also earned a 3.5 rating (out of 4) from Yelp, 4.5 (out of 5) from Trip Advisor  and 3.9 (out of 5) from Zomato. Interspersed among mostly glowing comments in these three crowd-sourced review forums are a few opinions which would make excellent roast material.  At least our experience wasn’t an outlier.

Chez Mamou is one of several French restaurants serving the City Different, not really a surprise considering the long and storied history of French people in New Mexico.  Launched in 2012, its East Palace Avenue location is scant blocks away from the Santa Fe Plaza, but in ways it seems almost an ocean away…as far away as a Paris sidewalk cafe.  That’s especially true on a Santa Fe summer morning if you’re trying to escape the sweltering heat of Albuquerque as was the case during our inaugural visit.  A light, cool breeze and the courtyard’s sun-shielding shade transported us to a better time and place.  Had we known Chez Mamou was so pet-friendly, we might have brought our four-legged children Tim and The Dude.

Al Fresco Dining at its Finest

Weather-permitted, the courtyard is definitely preferred seating.  If the courtyard is full, there are a few tables preceding the front entrance that’ll give you a great view of the street activity.  The space which houses Chez Mamou is bisected into two halves, one occupied by Noëlla Jewelry Couture.  Decor is tasteful and homey.  Step up into the cafe and your eyes will immediately gravitate toward the pastry case with its colorful display of pastries, breads, croissant and other French baked delicacies.  Few display cases in New Mexico are as lovely.  You’ll want to order the chocolate croissants the minute you walk in or you risk the cafe running out entirely.

From among the baked goods we shared, the chocolate croissants stand out.  While no croissant will ever have enough chocolate to sate this chocoholic, the chocolate chunks on these beauties are strategically placed so that you’ll experience sweet and savory tastes in virtually every bite.  The croissants are buttery, light and flaky, but they’re served with a hard butter which is a challenge to spread.  Fortunately a housemade strawberry jam accompanied our croissants.  The jam, nearly pureed in texture, was very reminiscent of fresh strawberries plucked at their optimum ripeness, neither too sweet nor too tart.

Mussels Mamou

Where Chez Mamou really stands out is in the large variety of its menu, particularly its brunch offerings.  While many restaurants feature an abbreviated brunch menu usually short on lunch-type offerings, Chez Mamou’s brunch menu is staggering in its variety.  Like me, the cafe doesn’t believe 7:30 in the morning is too early for Frog Legs, Escargots, Fettuccini Carbonara or any number of sandwiches on a canvas of freshly baked bread.  If you’re more of a traditionalist, the menu also includes a number of omelets (made with eggs produced by local, happy, free-range, Nambe hens) as well as sweet and savory crepes and even a Croque Madame…all because sometimes you feel like breakfast and sometimes you feel like lunch.

In England, as in much of Northern Europe, mussels are so readily available and relatively inexpensive that they’re often dismissed as a poor man’s shellfish.  During our years in England, we enjoyed mussels by the bushel, but we never contemplated the possibility of incorporating New Mexico flavors (not that we had red or green chile readily available) into either the wine- or cream-based broths we regularly prepared.  Thankfully restaurants in New Mexico, regardless of genre, know their patrons practically expect a little red or green in virtually every menu, even on dessert items…and as we all know, chile improves the overall flavor of everything it touches.

Steak Frites

In an inspired example of France meets New Mexico, Chez Mamou offers an eponymous appetizer called Mussels Mamou which showcases the lively flavor of red chile paired with the incomparable flavor of applewood smoked bacon in a light wine sauce punctuated by shallots and parsley.  Although comprised of only a paltry six mussels, everyone knows that more than half of the enjoyment of mussels is in sopping up the broth with a good bread.  Because the bread we were provided lacked the dredging qualities of great broth sopping bread (hence my Kim’s dissatisfaction described above), we had to spoon up the broth instead.  While still good, the sensory–tactile, olfactory and taste–experiences were diminished somewhat.

Because she missed the French fries often served with mussels (who doesn’t love moules frites?), my Kim’s choice of entree was the Steak Frites, a flank steak served with a pile of French fries and assorted vegetables.  After recent encounters with sinewy, tough ribeye steaks, we were delighted to find the flank steak tender and absolutely delicious (in Kim’s estimation, better than a much more expensive steak at Ruth’s Chris).  Prepared and seasoned to her exacting specifications, it didn’t even need the delectable mushrooms in gravy (not quite duxelles style) though they, too, were mouth-watering.  So were the vegetables (carrots, broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower) which were so good even avowed vegetable-haters of all ages would enjoy them.  Alas, the frites were strictly out-of-a-bag quality, a far cry from the twice-fried frites we enjoyed in Europe and now in La Quiche Parisienne in Albuquerque.

Duck Confit

One of the more challenging decisions we faced during our inaugural visit was how to enjoy the duck which is prepared three different ways: duck confit, duck confit pasta and duck confit salad.  The duck confit (red wine demi glace over slowly cooked duck) served with fresh roasted tomato, seasonal vegetables and potatoes au gratin had me at au gratin, a potato dish served often at French restaurants bur almost nowhere else.  A layer of Gruyere blanketed the perfectly prepared potatoes, imparting a creamy texture, richness and saltiness.  As with the aforementioned mussels, the superb red wine demi glace beckoned for bread so as not to leave a single drop on the plate.  It was one of the best demi glace preparations we’ve had at any French restaurant in New Mexico.  The duck, too, was well prepared and nicely seasoned with dark meat qualities showcased in every bite.

As beautiful as the pastries under glass appeared to be, we must have ordered the wrong ones because their appearance was certainly deceiving.  Kim opted for the cherry tart, the most redeeming quality of which was that real, whole cherries were used, not some gloppy gelatinous mix.  Alas, the thickness and plenitude of the breading was off-putting.  Such was the case as well with the almond tart of my choosing.  Topped with almond slivers and walnut pieces, it would have been far more enjoyable had there not been so much breading.

Pastry Tray

As with virtually all restaurants we visit, our experience was a mix of good and not-so-good.  That’s not surprising.  What is surprising is the delta between the good and not-so-good.  Our entrees were outstanding, as good as prepared at any French restaurant in the Land of Enchantment, but the baked goods (save for croissants) were lacking.  It’s quite possible this was an anomaly, but it’ll take additional visits to know for sure.  That’s something this gastronome and his oft-fussy better-half are happy to do.

Chez Mamou
217 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 216-1845
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Duck Confit, Steak Frites, Mussels Mamou

Chez Mamou French Cafe & Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Comal Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

El Comal Cafe, Serving Great New Mexican Food in Santa Fe for Thirty Years

From a social connectedness perspective, 1995 was the dark ages. The internet as we know and love it today was in its relative infancy.  There was no Urbanspoon, no Yelp, no Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog…no trusted online resource to enlighten and entice diners.  My only knowledge of Santa Fe’s restaurant scene came from fading memories and a 1994 article on Fortune magazine naming the City Different as one of the fruited plain’s ten best dining destinations.  The article listed such stalwarts as the Coyote Cafe, Santacafe and the Tecolote Cafe as among the city’s best.

After nearly two decades of wanderlust and travel courtesy of the United States Air Force, I had finally returned home to New Mexico and looked forward to introducing my bride of ten years to one of Fortune magazine’s anointed restaurants.  It was our first excursion together to Santa Fe and my first opportunity to impress my Kim with sophisticated Santa Fe cuisine.  My mom who’s infinitely more intelligent than I am had other ideas, steering us away from Fortune magazine’s popular tourist destinations and introducing us to one of Santa Fe’s quintessential off-the-beaten-path, mom-and-pop restaurants, a gem named El Comal.

Chips and Salsa

By 1995, El Comal had already been serving New Mexican cuisine for over a decade.  Tucked away in a small, nondescript strip mall that already had an anachronistic, timeworn look and feel to it, El Comal was the antithesis of Fortune magazine’s anointed restaurants, devoid of the trappings and superficiality that so often defines what unenlightened diners often consider signs of good restaurants.  El Comal is named for the heavy cast iron griddle used to cook tortillas.  It appeared to be a magnet for blue collar workers and Hispanic families, preparing New Mexican food as they would prepare it at home.

Just as El Comal itself is receded from the well-trafficked Cerrillos Road, over the years memories of the restaurant receded to the back of my mind.  Frankly, it wasn’t until the well-traveled Lobo Lair owner Mark Chavez mentioned it on a tweet that I fondly remembered a very good meal there so many years ago.  Chavez captioned a photo of his lunch “real recognize real.” Real is an apt description for El Comal, one of the least pretentious and most authentic New Mexican restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.  Not much had changed in the nineteen years since my last visit, but it did secure a commitment not to let so much time pass before my next visit.

Breakfast Enchiladas Christmas Style

If you have a number of restaurants on your “rotation” of frequent favorites, one visit to El Comal will probably  convince you to add it to that rotation. It’s that good!  It’s that real!  A comprehensive breakfast and lunch-dinner menu is replete with all your favorite New Mexican dishes while a chalkboard lists a handful of daily specials which the wait staff dutifully pushes.  During a visit in 2014, neither the red or green chile were made with cumin.  Two years later, cumin is used on the red chile and salsa, but the wait staff will swear it’s in moderation (though for someone who can discern one part cumin per million, it’s intensely present).  The green chile tends to be more piquant than the red so the heat obfuscates the influence of the cumin.

Chips and salsa have become so de rigueur that we often take for granted that they’ll be good and that they’ll be the most piquant items on the menu.  More than often the chips and salsa live up to those expectations.  At El Comal, they exceed all expectations…even though the presence of cumin is certainly discernible.  During my 2014 visit, I thought the chips and salsa were among the best served at any New Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe, but the addition of cumin has changed my opinion.  The salsa, made with red chile, is incendiary, offering a piquancy that is heightened by the restaurant’s scalding hot coffee.  The chips are crisp, lightly salted and perfect for dredging large scoops of the superb salsa.

Carne Adovada Taco

25 July 2014: When your server pushes a dish such as the breakfast enchiladas with alacrity, not ordering them is not an option.  Thank goodness I’m such an easy mark.  These are among the very best breakfast enchiladas I’ve had: two rolled corn tortillas engorged with scrambled eggs and chorizo topped with shredded cheese and red and green chile (Christmas-style).  Chorizo is the Rodney Dangerfield of the breakfast meats, usually mentioned after bacon, sausage and ham, but when it’s made well, there is no meat quite as rousing in the morning. El Comal’s chorizo is rich and flavorful with a pleasant spiciness and just a bit of char.  The corn tortillas are redolent with the enticing aromas of corn just off the comal. 

The highlight of the breakfast enchilada entree is most assuredly the red and green chile, both of which are quite good.  The red chile has a depth of flavor very few red chiles achieve. The green chile also has a real personality, one that reminds you chile is technically a fruit.  The breakfast enchiladas are served with pinto beans and hash browns.  The hash browns are of the “take it or leave it” variety, but dip them in the chile and they’re addictive.  In fact, the chile is so good you’ll finish off the oft-annoying garnish with it.  The beans are top shelf, as good as they can be made. 

Chicken Enchilada with Guacamole

25 July 2014: El Comal offers a la carte tacos filled with ground beef, shredded beef, chicken and get this, carne adovada. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a carne adovada taco. It’s a life altering experience, one that might entice you to order the carne adovada plate on your next visit.  The carne adovada is porcine perfection, tender tendrils of pork marinated in a wondrous red chile (albeit tinged with cumin).  It pairs wonderfully with the corn tortilla in which it’s nestled.  My Kim now wishes all tacos were carne adovada tacos.

5 June 2016: When consternation crossed our faces upon hearing that both the red and green chile were made with cumin, our server insisted we wouldn’t even notice.  That wasn’t the case (not even close), but the green chile has such a pleasant piquancy that it offset the McCormack’s seasoning flavor of cumin.  There was plenty of green chile blanketing flat enchiladas engorged with chicken with a dollop of  guacamole on the side.  Yes, in an example of truth in labeling, the menu described the dish as enchiladas with guacamole and that’s what we got.  Mary & Tito’s seems the only restaurant capable of actually using guacamole as a filler as well as a topper.  In any case, the green chile and the pronounced corn flavor of the tortillas made these enchiladas a winner.

Migas

5 June 2016:  Santa Fe is home to the best migas we’ve enjoyed in New Mexico with the very best being found at Cafe Fina (The Chocolate Maven’s version is also excellent).  Despite the addition of jalapeños, El Comal’s rendition lacked any real bite…and that’s not this asbestos-tongued fire-eater talking, but my infinitely more delicate wife.  A molten blanket of cheese covered scrambled eggs, tomatoes and torn ribbons of tortilla chips.  Should we order migas at El Comal a second time, we’ll ask for the green chile instead of the tepid jalapeños.

El Comal may not be on any national publications touting the best in Santa Fe restaurants, but locals have a high regard for this small mom-and-pop. It’s a great restaurant warranting a greater frequency of visits.

El Comal Cafe
3571 Cerrillos
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 471-3224
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 June 2016
1st VISIT: 25 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Coffee, Breakfast Enchiladas Christmas Style, Chips and Salsa, Carne Adovada Taco, Migas, Guacamole and Chicken Enchiladas, Sopaipillas, Tortillas

El Comal Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Museum Hill Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Museum Hill Cafe in Santa Fe

Widely reputed to have the most spectacular views in Santa Fe and boasting of four world-renowned museums, Museum Hill may be the only location where visitors are more in awe of the site’s breathtaking backdrop than they are of the contents of the magnificent repositories that house the area’s cultural and historical heritage.   Set in an idyllic haven surrounded by panoramic views of hills dotted with dessert flora, colorful weather-worn mesas and verdured mountains, Museum Hill inspires awe and wonder.  Whether bathed in clear, unobstructed cerulean skies or punctuated by ethereally wispy clouds painted red, yellow and orange by  fiery sunsets, incomparable vistas surround you.

Perched on a hillside a scant two miles off the historic Santa Fe Trail, Museum Hill area is home to the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of Indian Art and Culture, the Museum of International Folk Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.  A new addition, Santa Fe’s Botanical Garden sits across the street.  Atop Museum Hill’s “upper deck” is the expansive Milner Plaza which houses two of the quadrumvirate of museums.   The concrete plaza is surrounded by a beautifully manicured array of native grasses, sages and trees interspersed with stunning Native American sculptures.

Stunning East-Facing Hills of Rolling Hills and Native American Statuary

Sandwiched between the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art is the Museum Hill Cafe.  Weather-permitting, a seat on the cafe’s capacious patio will reward you with east-facing views that include not only the rolling hills backdropping the City Different, but famed architect John Gaw Meem’s  Pueblo Revival Laboratory of Anthropology of the Museum of New Mexico and a towering sculpture depicting an Apache Mountain Spirit Dancer.  Should you dine indoors, your west-facing views through large picture windows are of the Jemez Mountains.  Both options present you with opportunities to enjoy some of the best views you’ll experience anywhere in the Land of Enchantment.

The Museum Hill Cafe has quite a challenge.  Anything less than ambrosial cuisine worthy of its dramatic setting and diners will cast it aside as just fodder for a captive crowd.  The Cafe is open for lunch six days a week (from 11AM through 3PM) and offers an extensive brunch menu on Sundays.  With an eclectic menu showcasing a wide diversity of New Mexican, Asian, Mexican and American items, there’s something for everyone–and as author Anne Hillerman pointed out in her Albuquerque Journal review: “With its unmatched location, the Museum Hill Cafe could coast along with a less interesting menu or average food preparation.  After all, thousands of visitors and locals cruise by each month.  But, thankfully, the first-rate food here reflects the same commitment to quality you find in the museums and at the garden.”

Smoked Duck Flautas

The extensive menu is segmented into four sections: soups and starters, Museum Hill specialties, sandwiches and salads.  If you’re thinking that’s pretty standard cafe fare, peruse a bit further into each section and you’ll see such inventive items as corn custard with a poblano sauce to start off your meal.  Several satisfying bites later, the terminus of your dining experience could be any one of several housemade pies, including some (such as the pistachio cream pie) you won’t find just anywhere.  In between bites, you’ll remain entranced by the arresting views surrounding you.

Almost artistic in their presentation are smoked duck flautas, a Museum Hill Cafe specialty.  Three flour tortilla wedges filled with smoked duck confit and served with a mango dipping sauce are reminiscent of a similar offering at Albuquerque’s Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro.  The duck is moist and flavorful with finely shredded tendrils nestled tightly into the folded tortilla.  While the mango dipping sauce may have a texture and appearance similar to Gerber baby food, it provides a nice contrast to the savory flautas.  Even better is a side of mango-pineapple salsa (finely chopped jalapeños, red peppers, red onion and cilantro) which has just enough punch (courtesy of the jalapeño) to titillate your tongue.

Curried Lentil Stew

The curried lentil stew (slow-cooked green lentils, carrots, tomato, celery served with orzo, edamame and a sprinkling of feta cheese) had me at curry.  Served in a swimming pool-sized bowl (easily portioned for two), this stew is a wonderful study in the way ingredients work together to form a flavorful composite that’s better than any of the ingredients by itself.  The shredded feta in particular provides a sharp, tangy contrast to the sweet carrots while the orzo and green lentils meld to provide a dissimilarity in texture and flavor that goes very well together.  My sole complaint and it’s a nit is that some of the qualities of curry, especially piquancy and pungency, aren’t more prominent.

You’ll want to save room for desserts which your server will ferry over to your table on a large tray. For the most part, dessert consists of pies made for the Cafe by an obvious practitioner of perfect pie-making.  It’s an exercise in willpower to pass over such tempting treats as pecan pie and a strawberry-rhubarb pie, but as an adventurous epicure, it was the pistachio cream pie that ensnared my interest.  When is the last time you had pistachio cream pie?  If, like me, you answered “never,” that’s reason enough to try this masterpiece, a thick wedge topped with a fluffy cream topping sprinkled with chopped pecans.  This pie isn’t overly sweet as some pies are apt to be and it definitely tastes more like real pistachios than like some artificial flavoring out of a box.  Not since the avocado pie at Orlando’s in Taos has a sliver of pie intrigued me quite as much.

Pistachio Cream Pie

A visit to the Museum Hill Cafe is an experience not only in visual stimulation, but in making challenging decisions–where to sit, what to order, which museum to visit next and more.  These are the type of decisions visitors will enjoy.

Museum Hill Cafe
710 Camino Lejo
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 984-8900
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Smoked Duck Flautas, Curried Lentil Stew, Pistachio Cream Pie

Museum Hill Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Clafoutis – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Clafoutis French Bakery & Restaurant

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, you only need to know 10 words to understand 25-percent of what native [English] speakers say and write. You need to know 100 words to understand 50-percent of what native speakers say and write, and 1000 words to understand 75-percent of all the words used in common, everyday English. To understand 95-percent of the text used in blogs (even this one) and newspapers, you need a vocabulary of only 3,000 words. Considering the Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 171,000 words in current use (and another 47,000 obsolete words), knowing 3,000 words doesn’t sound very impressive.

Many years ago before my first trip to France, I took an inventory of how many French words I knew, arriving at somewhere near that magical number of 3,000. While knowing that many words in English would make me fairly conversant, knowing 3,000 words in French (from a language boasting of 100,000 words) certainly didn’t endow me with conversational fluency. Not even close! French orthography, the spelling and punctuation of the French language, comes easy for me compared to pronunciation. If you’ve ever seen the episode of Friends in which Joey Tribbiani attempted to speak French, you’ll know of what I speak.

Clafoutis on a very busy Saturday afternoon

While enjoying the relaxed ambiance and luxuriating in the intoxicating aromas of freshly roasted coffee at Clafoutis French Bakery and Restaurant in Santa Fe, my ears perked up upon hearing a Mexican server and Mexican busboy merrily greeting guests with “Bonjour Madam” or “Bonjour Monsieur” as appropriate. It brought to mind my own failed attempts at speaking French at a sidewalk café in Normandy lo those many years ago. In Spanish I asked the busboy how much French he could actually speak and smiling shyly, he admitted to not knowing more than a handful of words. That, however, was not the case with Samantha, our statuesque server.

Samantha, a Rutgers graduate who majored in theater and guided us through an exquisite meal, is conversant in both French and Italian. She even taught us how to pronounce Clafoutis, prompting Kim to chide me “I told you it wasn’t Claw Footies.” Kim did a much better job at reciprocating all the “merci beaucoups” and “sil vous plaits” than I did. Decades-old memories of speaking French like Aldo the Apache (the Brad Pitt character in Inglorious Basterds) had rendered me more than a bit bashful. Samantha, similar to most (but not all) servers in France, was very patient and kind, grateful that we would make the effort to engage her in French.

Duck Breast Salad

Named for a luscious French dessert made by baking fruit in a custard-like batter, Clafoutis could just as easily be named Déjà vu for the “haven’t I been here before” sensation you experience as you take your place in the long queue of guests waiting to for a table. More than any other French restaurant we’ve visited in New Mexico, Clafoutis looks, feels, smells and tastes like the French cafes of my travels to France. That’s not just my experience. Santa Fe’s scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author Cheryl Jamison describes Clafoutis as “pretty much like a mini-trip to France and, to me, that pretty much equals a trip to Shangri-La.”

On her 10Best column for USA Today, Billie Frank, one-half of the fabulous Santa Fe Travelers notes that this “bustling boulangerie/patisserie…will take you to Paris.” Or at least Paris meets Santa Fe. Clafoutis is located at the northern terminus of Guadalupe Street next door to a Land of Enchantment landmark, a LotaBurger. You’ll want to heed Billie’s advice: “Parking is a bit challenging here. Arrive at 7AM when they open or mid-morning after the early rush.” We arrived shortly before noon and faced the dual challenge of finding a place to park as well as having to stand in line behind a dozen or so equally ravenous diners. Those ravenous diners became rather long-faced when they were finally seated only to find the pastry case nearly empty and learning that the beignets (a Saturday morning special) had run out.

L’Assisette Francaise (The French Plate)

Because of close proximity seating, you can practically imbibe all the aromas and flavors of dishes being delivered to your neighbors. It exacerbates the challenge of deciding what to order. You’ll likely change your mind several times before deciding, but it’s probably impossible to make a bad choice. The lunch menu is organized into categories: les quiches, les salads, soup al’oignon (onion soup), les sandwiches, les bruschettes, les crepes and los croques (Croque Monsieur and Croque Madame). Entrees are spelled out in French with English translations immediately thereafter. Descriptions of each item are in English. Your server will recite the specials of the day.

If the daily special is the duck salad, shout your order if you have to, just don’t miss out on one of the best salads you’ll have. This entree features a generous number of duck breast medallions seared to a lovely pinkish hue in the middle with a slightly caramelized crust on the outside. With a fatty (but not greasy) richness, moistness and tenderness, the duck may be the star of this stunning dish, but it’s got an excellent supporting cast: juicy and tart grapefruit slices, walnut halves, fresh greens and a light drizzling of Dijonnaise dressing. The Dijonnaise leans much more toward mustardy qualities than it does mayonnaise. That’s a good thing for those of us who appreciate lively flavors.

Sandwich Prosciutto

In the spirit and tradition of the Charcuterie, Clafoutis offers an L’Assiette (French plate) brimming with cornichons, ham, prosciutto, hard salami, pearl onions, cheese, mixed green salad, butter and brie. It’s nearly everything the French version of Dagwood would want on a sandwich. Indeed, if you are inclined to pile onto the accompanying sliced baguette, you could have several beautiful sandwiches. Alternatively, you could savor each and every morsel of these French “cold cuts” sans pain (bread). For palate cleanser in between meats and cheeses, don’t use the cornichons, delightful little French baby “pickles,” with a zesty, tangy snap. Instead delight in the simplicity of French butter on baguette slices. We often crossed the English channel just to pick up bread, butter, cheese and wine. Clafoutis reminded us how thoroughly enjoyable those experiences were.

There are a number of superb options on the sandwich menu. Unlike their American counterparts, most sandwiches in Europe don’t tend to be adorned with so many ingredients piled on that you lose a sense of what it is you’re enjoying. Sandwiches at Clafoutis tend to have no more than a few ingredients, including lettuce and tomatoes. As with the bakery-fresh sandwiches we enjoyed in Europe, butter and not mayo or mustard, is the preferred condiment on several of the sandwiches. The Sandwiche au Prosciutto (prosciutto, butter, tomatoes and lettuce) is an exemplar of why butter is sometimes better than say, mustard. The saltiness of the prosciutto and the tanginess of mustard would cancel one another out. The fresh, creamy butter allows the prosciutto to shine. Sometimes it’s the simple touches that work best.

Nutella Crepe with Ice Cream and French Jams

Savory and dessert crepes are offered all day long as are the large house waffles. For us there is no better crepe than one topped or stuffed with Nutella then heaped with a scoop or two of ice cream. That’s how we ordered our crepe at Clafoutis though we also asked for jam which, thankfully was presented on the side in tiny jars we took home. It took one bit for both of us to proclaim these the best crepes we’ve had on this side of the pond. Thankfully we were given spoons with which enjoy the crepes because stabbing someone with a spoon isn’t as painful and we both wanted the last morsel of that crepe.

Julia Child once said “In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport.” Be that the case, Clafoutis is a gold medal winner, an absolutely wonderful piece of French heaven meeting enchantment in New Mexico.

Clafoutis
402 Guadalupe Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 988-4809
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 13 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Nutella Crepe with Ice Cream and French Jams, Sandwich Prosciutto, Duck Breast Salad, L’Assisette Francaise

Clafoutis Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tecolote Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The World Famous Tecalote Café

Everyone knows the most sagacious of all creatures in nature is the owl. The owl is to whom all other creatures go to get some of life’s most pondered questions answered–questions such as “how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”  After having posed the question to a cow, a fox and a turtle, a young boy decides to ask the wise owl. “Good question, let’s find out,” the owl retorts. “A One…A two-hoo…A three (crunch sound effect). Three!”  It took three licks for the erudite owl to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie roll, prompting the boy to declare, “if there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a smart owl.”

Three is also the number of visits to New Mexico restaurants made in December, 2007 by Guy Fieri while filming episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives for the Food Network. Fieri was wise enough to make one of those visits to Santa Fe’s own owl, the famous and fabulous Tecolote Cafe.  Tecolote is the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for “owl,” but founding proprietors Bill and Alice Jamison actually named their restaurant for an all-but-deserted Northern New Mexican village alongside the railroad tracks just south of Las Vegas, New Mexico about 55 miles east of Santa Fe.

One of the restaurant’s sprawling dining rooms

Throughout history, the owl has played a significant role in the myths and legends of many cultures. Just as in Old Mexico, in northern New Mexico the owl often represents “la bruja” or the witch–either the malevolent or benevolent kind (as masterfully represented by the title character in the outstanding Rudolfo Anaya novel Bless Me Ultima). As such, to many the owl is either to be feared or revered.  The attribution of wisdom to the owl actually started with Ancient Athenians who called the owl the bird of wisdom. It’s conventional wisdom for Santa Fe residents to start their days with breakfast at the Tecolote Cafe, one of the city’s most popular dining destinations. It became even more popular after the Food Network first aired the episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featuring the restaurant.

The December filming occurred shortly after the staff had decorated the restaurant for Christmas. Because the Food Network airs each episode several times throughout the year, the Tecolote staff had to take down the Christmas decorations so that the restaurant would appear seasonally agnostic.The Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives crew spent about 23 hours over a two-day period in the restaurant. Host Guy Fieri’s focus was on the Tecolote’s famous red and green chile which he helped prepare under the watchful eye of former general manager Chris Valdez (who now owns and operates the fabulous Chris’ Cafe), one of the coolest and down-to-earth restaurant personalities we’ve met–an excellent foil for the effervescent Fieri.

Bakery Basket with Strawberry Preserves and Whipped Butter

The Tecolote received the coveted third segment on the program, meaning it the segment was bisected by a commercial. The segment lasted little more than six minutes, but it reintroduced America to a Santa Fe treasure which was named one of Santa Fe’s ten best dining destinations by Fortune magazine in the early 1990s  Since it opened in June, 1980, the Tecolote Cafe has earned a bevy of accolades. It is a perennial winner of “best breakfast” awards from local and national publications. Quite simply, it’s one of the best reasons to get up in the morning in Santa Fe.  In fact, you’d better get up early and get to the Tecolote shortly after it opens at 7AM because within an hour after opening, you might just have to wait for a seat. 

In the 2011 season premier of the Sundance Channel’s Ludo Bites America show which first aired on July 19th, nomadic chef Ludo LeFebvre transformed the Tecolote Cafe into Ludo Bites Tecolote.  The premise of the show is that the eccentric chef travels across the country and creates a “pop-up” restaurant on an existing restaurant premises.  Only New Mexico’s piquant peppers were a match for Ludo’s tempestuous nature in this entertaining half hour.  Interesting though they were, the liberties Ludo took in crafting a New Mexico meets Ludo menu pale in comparison with Tecolote’s standard menu.

Chips and salsa with chile piquin

Chips and salsa with chile piquin

When Alice and Bill Jennison first opened Tecolote Cafe in 1980, their mission was to serve excellent food at a reasonable price while making their guests feel at home. Over three decades later the family still strives for these qualities.   Bill passed away in May, 2010 and Alice followed suit two and a half years later.  Today, their daughter Katie and her husband Matt own and operate the Tecolote, pleasing Santa Fe’s palate now for more than three decades.  The restaurant’s staff is among the most accommodating and friendly in the City Different.  Our favorite is Mela whose broad smile and buoyant sense of humor make early mornings easier to take.

One of the cafe’s mottos is “Great Breakfast–No Toast.” That’s okay because you won’t miss toast in the least. Breakfast entrees are accompanied by your choice of a bakery basket or a tortilla. In its July-August, 2010 issue, Food Network magazine celebrated the “most important meal of the day” in a feature entitled “50 States, 50 Breakfasts.”  The magazine featured “the best breakfast” in every state in the union.  The New Mexico selection was the Tecolote Cafe’s atole piñon pancakes (more on these gems later).  Apparently even after five years, the Food Network couldn’t find any better breakfast in the Land Of Enchantment as it named those atole piñon pancakes New Mexico’s best breakfast choice in 2015, too. 

Huevos Yucatecos

Huevos Yucatecos

6 December 2015: The bakery basket includes a variety of muffins, cinnamon rolls, biscuits, strawberry preserves and whipped butter. It arrives at your table shortly after you place your order and it arrives just out of the oven fresh, hot and delicious. If the basket doesn’t fill you up, it’ll put a dent on your appetite.  The strawberry preserves are homemade and are as good as you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico. 

Save room for the Tecolote’s chips and salsa. Although New Mexico is the world capital for chile, many of our restaurants don’t use chile on their salsa, heating it up instead with jalapenos. That’s a shame because red and (or) green chile can really liven up salsa.  Red chile piquin is discernible in the Tecolote Cafe’s salsa which is the rich red color of invigorating freshness and piquancy. This salsa packs a punch as it should, but where it stands out is in its chile enriched flavor.

Atole-pinon hotcakes

Atole-pinon hotcakes

The cafe’s other motto as sported on the shirts worn by the staff is “Get Your Chile Fix at the Tecolote Cafe.” That’s an appropriate motto for a cafe which serves up some of the best chile in northern New Mexico. In Santa Fe the only green chile to compare with this one comes from the legendary Horseman’s Haven.  It is quite simply outstanding!  That green chile is showcased in several of the restaurant’s signature dishes, but may shine most brightly on the Huevos Yucatecos. Initially offered as a special, it became so popular it just had to be added to the menu.

Huevos Yucatecos feature corn tortillas layered with black beans, two eggs any style, green chile, Swiss and feta cheese, pico de gallo, and surrounded with fried bananas. It is served with your choice of beans, posole, or potatoes (ask for all three). It is one of the dishes featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  It stands to reason that host Guy Fieri would relate to an entree which melds seemingly disparate ingredients. Several years ago Fieri launched Tex Wasabi, a restaurant serving Southwestern barbecue and California-style sushi, as innovative a fusion of disparate cuisine as you’ll find anywhere. Fieri appreciated the Huevos Yucatecos.

Carne Adovada Breakfast with Potatoes and Two Eggs

This dish arrives at your table piping hot with the aroma of piquant green chile steaming toward your nostrils. It’s an aroma every New Mexican finds as alluring and irresistible as a siren’s call. The Tecolote Cafe’s green chile is absolutely wonderful (though I’ve already stated this, it bears repeating), epitomizing the high standards for which our state vegetable is beloved.  At over easy, the yoke from the fried eggs runs onto the green chile to add another flavor dimension. For absolute contrast, however, slice up the fried bananas and use your fork to dip them into the green chile, egg yolk mix. Think Bananas Foster New Mexico style. 

The fried potatoes are crispy and low in salt, a commonality among many menu items. The chile and beans, in fact, are prepared in pure soy oil with very little salt. They contain no meat or cholesterol.  Back to the fried potatoes. They’re sliced almost potato chip thin, but have a great flavor. The pinto beans are not your run-of-the-mill soupy, just-off-the-stove pintos nor are they the often dreaded and desiccated refried beans. These beans have obviously simmered on a stove and are served at the peak of flavor.

Huevos Rancheros with Posole

Huevos Rancheros with Posole

6 December 2015: Another popular breakfast entree is carne y huevos. The carne is adovada, a heaping serving of lean pork loin cooked in a blend of chiles (including chile piquin), chopped garlic, cracked pepper and Mexican oregano. The pork is both cubed and shredded with the obvious low and slow preparation style which makes it tender.  The best carne adovada tends to have a very smooth and mellow flavor profile.  Tecolote’s rendition is a bit heavy-handed with the oregano, rendering an otherwise excellent adovada more than a bit on the astringent side.   This entree is served with two eggs any style and the Tecolote Cafe’s famous potatoes.  

Aside from the chile, the one dish which seemed to capture Fieri’s imagination was the atole blue corn-piñon pancakes which he described as having “real texture, not just light fluffy nothing.” He called them “some of the best.”  Forty years ago the word “atole” was among the most dreaded in the vernacular of northern New Mexico for this native. Atole then represented a thick cornmeal cereal which my abuelitas swore had curative properties. They never succeeded in getting me to eat it. Maybe they should have used it to craft pancakes.  The secret to these pancakes is the blue, ground cornmeal which is the chief ingredient in the atole I dreaded so many years ago. Toss in piñon evenly throughout the pancakes, serve them with hot maple syrup and whipped batter and you’ve got just about the best medicine for the morning blues.

The Kitchen Sink

6 December 2015: The special of the day, scrawled on a slate board near the restaurant entrance, sported the rather interesting name “The Kitchen Sink,” a term which implies an entrée made with everything in the kitchen and then some.  Alas, when it came time to place our orders, I had forgotten the name and called it the “Garbage Pail.”  It took Mela a few seconds to figure out what I wanted.  The Kitchen Sink starts off with two fluffy biscuits, one topped with green chile and the other with carne adovada, both of which are blanketed by two eggs.  This is a terrific dish, especially the biscuit half topped with the green chile.  As we joked with Mela, there’s no way a dish this good could possibly be named for refuse.

You may have noticed from the photograph at the start of this review depicts a different Tecolote Café than one you may have visited in the past.  For almost 34 years, the Tecolote Café served the City Different on heavily trafficked Cerrillos.  On April 20th, 2014, the fabled and fabulous restaurant closed its original restaurant, reopening in much more capacious and modern digs on July 14th, 2015 at the Village West Shopping Center on Saint Michael’s.  As with its previous location, getting seated at the Tecolote Cafe may take a while, but once you’re seated, the staff is quick to deliver some of the very best breakfast in New Mexico. To avoid a lengthy wait, get there when the restaurant opens promptly at 7AM and you’ll beat the crowds of owl-wise diners who love the Tecolote Cafe.

Tecolote Cafe
1616 Saint Michael’s Drive
Santa Fe, New Mexico

(505) 988-1362
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 06 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Huevos Yucatecos, Carne Y Huevos, Atolé Piñon Pancakes, Salsa and Chips, Bakery Basket, Huevos Rancheros with Posole, The Kitchen Sink

Tecolote Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Posa’s El Merendero – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Posa’s El Merendero in Santa Fe

When we phoned our friend Carlos to ask where the best tamales in Santa Fe were to be found, he waxed enthusiastic about a tamale factory and restaurant on Rodeo Road just west of Saint Francis.  He told us the restaurant was once owned by a professional wrestler and is Santa Fe’s equivalent of Albuquerque’s legendary El Modelo.  After we hung up with Carlos, neither my Kim nor I could remember the restaurant’s name or exact address.  We’d both assumed the other one would remember.  I seemed to recall the restaurant’s name being “El Mero Mero,” a name which made a lot of sense to me because it can translate from Spanish to “the main one,” “the top dog,” “the head honcho” or other terms of that ilk.  Needless to say, we couldn’t find El Mero Mero.

Because El Mero Mero didn’t work out, my second brilliant hypothesis was “El Maromero,” or “the somersaulter.”  That name didn’t even make sense to me (much less to my brilliant better half), but considering the uniquely wacky names (not to mention costumes) used by Mexican luchadores, maybe El Maromero wasn’t that outlandish.  After not being able to El Maromero, we turned into a parking lot to call Carlos again.  There in front of us was Posa’s El Merendero, the tamale factory and restaurant of which he had spoken so highly.

El Merendero Dining Room

Merendero is a Spanish word for an open-air cafe or bar, typically in the country or on the beach.  While a restaurant by that name being in Santa Fe made just a little more sense to us as “El Maromero” did, it must have made sense to the Posa family who launched their tamale-making operation  on Galisteo Street in 1955.  Today El Merendero has two locations in Santa Fe, the tamale factory and restaurant on Rodeo Road (the one whose name and address we couldn’t remember) and a newer one on Zafarano Drive.  

El Merendero has been owned and operated from the beginning by the Posa family.  Among the Posa proprietors were Antonio and Carmen Posa, the former being the professional wrestler of which Carlos spoke.  Antonio Posa wrestled for several decades, once holding the world middleweight title.  Today the operation is owned by Jeff Posa, a third-generation owner who values continuity and quality so much that he still uses his grandmother’s original recipes.  Why mess with perfection…or at least a very good thing?

Posa’s Tamale Pie

Who says those recipes touch perfection? Not only generations of Santa Feans esteem Posa’s El Merendero that highly, but so do Americans from coast-to-coast to whom tantalizing tamales are shipped…and if you’re wondering where some of the Land of Enchantment’s most popular New Mexican restaurants obtain their tamales, wonder no further. El Merendero has been provisioning restaurants with tamales for years. Not surprisingly, the tamale factory’s busiest tamale-making time of year is around the Christmas holidays when as many as 14,000 handmade tamales per day are made each day, using only Hatch chile.

For many restaurants and cooks at home, tamales begin and end with pork, leaving many of us to wonder what tamales would be like if constructed with something else.  El Merendero has actualized that foodie fantasy, offering not only a green chile-chicken tamale, but a vegetarian option (a combination of mozzarella and asadero cheeses and green chile) and even a hard-core vegan version (squash, black beans, corn and green chile). No longer are tamales solely for carnivores. No longer do we have to wonder what tamales taste like when green chile isn’t added after-the-fact.

Carne Adovada with Calabasitas

Lest you remain in suspense, you should know that the tamales–both the red chile pork and the green chile chicken–are terrific.  We took home a half-dozen of each and wiped them out over the course of two meals.  They’re not quite as sizable as the tamales at El Modelo nor are they as piquant, but they’ve got all the qualities great tamales share.  The ratio of masa to pork or chicken allows for the flavor profile of each to be easily discerned.  The masa has the pronounced flavor of corn with sweet and savor notes.  Both the pork and the chicken are tender and impregnated with chile, not so much that it overwhelms the delicate flavors of the meat, but just enough to complement both.  Ever the traditionalists, we enjoyed the red chile pork tamales most, but would partake of the green chile chicken tamales any time we can get them.

El Merendero is no one-trick-pony, offering a full menu of New Mexican food favorites you can enjoy in the dining room or as take-out, the latter being an extremely popular choice.  You’ll place your order at a counter above which is posted an oversized six-panel menu that includes appetizers, hand-held burritos, Mexican plates, “local favorites,” tamales (of course) and Mexican grill items.  A number of sides are also available for your in-house or to-go enjoyment.  If there’s one item you should try during your inaugural visit, it’s the tamales and as you’ve read, there are several ways to enjoy them.

Frito Pie

One unique way to enjoy El Merendero’s tamales is in the form of Posas tamale pie (two tamales, red chile beef with beans, cheese, lettuce, diced tomato and onion).  It’s a deep bowl of comfort food goodness New Mexican style.  As much as possible, you’ll want each bite to include a little bit of every ingredient on the dish.  The one stand-out on this savory pie is, of course, the two tamales which enhance the flavor of everything else on the plate.  Alas, because the tamales are rather small, you’ll run out of tamale before you run out of beans, cheese, etc. 

For my Kim, it wouldn’t be a visit to a New Mexican restaurant without carne adovada (marinated red chile pork served with your choice of beans, rice or calabasitas as well as garnish and either a tortilla or a sopaipilla).  A generous amount of carne rewards you with tender tendrils and cubes of porcine perfection ameliorated with a pleasantly piquant red chile.  The calabasitas (green and yellow squash and zucchini with corn) have a fresh, in-season texture and deliciousness. 

Instead of the usual salsa and chips, consider Frito Pie (Fritos corn chips, red chile beef with beans, cheese, lettuce, diced tomato and onions) a viable and absolutely delicious appetizer option.  Good as it is, two things would make it even better–less lettuce and tomatoes to cool what is already a barely warm enough dish.  In fact, dishes served warm and not hot was a commonality of all three dishes we ate.  The other commonality was lack of piquancy.  When my Kim complains of a New Mexican dish being “gringo hot,” you can bet the chile is somewhat on the wimpy side. 

For one-hundred percent handmade tamales and so much more, Posa’s El Merendero is an excellent choice.

Posa’s El Merendero
1514 Rodeo Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 820-7672
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Posa’s Tamale Pie, Carne Adovada, Frito Pie, Watermelon Agua Fresca

Posa's El Merendero Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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