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Santacafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santacafe, a Santa Fe Institution Since 1983

Is there anything as pure and simple as the innocence of a child, especially during the most magical time of the year? When my then six-year-old niece penned a heartfelt letter to Santa Claus, there was no doubt in her mind that her letter would be delivered and her wish would be granted. After all, she had been extra good all year long and what she wanted for Christmas was so reasonable. My niece’s fondest Christmas wish was that her family dine at Santacafe—not because of its reputation for inspired cuisine, but because she was sure she would meet jolly old Saint Nick at his restaurant “Santa Café.”

It’s entirely possible my niece may have been the only person ever to have suffered a crushing disappointment at Santacafe, an elegant edifice which has been fulfilling wishes of discerning diners ever since it launched in 1983. In its three decades plus of pleasing the refined and pedantic palates of Santa Fe’s residents and visitors, Santacafe has been consistently regarded as one of the City Different’s very best, an institution the New York Times called “a restaurant to love, offering perhaps the best combination of inspired food and attractive surroundings in the city.”

Georgia O’Keefe Inspired Dining Room Complete with Elk Antlers Over Fireplace

As you approach from Washington Avenue, those attractive surroundings won’t jump out at you nor will Santacafe’s rather austere signage. In fact, the restaurant’s frontage is rather homogeneous, albeit a lighter adobe hued than most. Step into the boulder-strewn courtyard with its canopies of towering shade-providing trees and you’ll be magically transported (at least for a little while) to another place, an even better Santa Fe. When the air cools, you can retreat to one of the four small dining rooms where kiva style fireplaces form the cynosure for otherwise minimalistic and immaculately white surroundings in which the color of the tablecloths matches the color of the walls. Close proximity seating has the advantage of being able to see the culinary classics being delivered to your neighbors’ tables.

Long before it was a restaurant, the adobe abode was the home of Jose Manuel Gallegos, an ordained Roman Catholic priest who eventually dedicated himself entirely to politics, even serving two stints on the United States Congress. In the novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, author Willa Cather depicted Padre Gallegos as a hedonistic glutton and gambler. These contentions were disputed and disproved by noted historian Fray Angelico Chavez who ultimately established that racist writers and historians had unjustly besmirched New Mexico and its Hispanic citizenry whom they painted as dissolute and indolent.

Bread

Over the years, Santacafe has attracted its share of the glitterati—both to the “front” and the “back of the house.” From 1997 through 1997, Ming Tsai served as executive chef, earning “best chef in Santa Fe” honors and garnering a “27” out of “30” in the 1996 Zagat Guide. Tsai’s “East meets Southwest Cuisine” concept drew the interest of the Food Network where a year after leaving Santacafe, he began hosting an Emmy award-winning show called “East Meets West.” Giada De Laurentiis, another Food Network luminary never worked Santacafe’s hallowed kitchen, but she did visit the restaurant in 1997 for her “Giada’s Weekend Getaway” show.

The influence of Ming Tsai is still very much in evidence on the menu (including the shiitake-and-cactus spring rolls with Southwestern ponzu dipping sauce), but Giada’s influence may be even more prevalent in the form of diners attempting to mimic her dining experience. Like the toothsome beauty, they ogle the covered 40-foot well by the bar which dates back to 1857. They pick up the crayons provided on each table and draw on the white paper atop the even whiter table cloths. They order what Giada ordered. That would be the swoon-inducing crispy calamari and the vegetarian chile relleno. Both are excellent choices!

Mexican Braised Beef & Chorizo Quesadilla

The menu is replete with excellent choices. It’s a frequently changing digest of deliciousness, with items in red denoting changes through the month as fresh, seasonal produce becomes available. It’s the type of menu about which you’re likely to ask your servers a few clarifying questions (is the lobster roll made with mayo, for example). It’s the type of menu you’ll peruse at length because there are so many options that sound equally appealing.

Fortunately while you’re perusing the menu, your servers will deliver a basket of yeasty, crusty bread and crispy flatbread impregnated with red chile. Whipped butter from a small ramekin spreads easily over the bread, but you won’t want anything touching the flatbread which has a discernible bite (the type of which traumatizes tourists, but delights locals). You’re likely to polish off the basket before appetizers arrive, but servers will happily oblige (and likely expect) requests for bread replenishment.

Grilled Angus Petite Filet

The aforementioned crispy calamari that so besotted Giada spearheads the triumvirate of appetizer “classics” which also include the aforesaid cactus spring rolls as well as shrimp and spinach dumplings with tahini sauce. Chimayo red chile onion rings with Judy’s catsup (more on this later) are another popular choice. You might also opt for the Mexican braised beef and chorizo quesadilla with Asadero cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo and crema fresca. The tortilla, with prominent striations from a grill, can’t hold in all the ingredients or their flavor.  It’s a winner and so are accompanying condiments, especially the dill-infused crema fresca.

One of the reasons I suggested earlier that you ask questions about menu items in which you’re interested is  because you want to ensure what you order is precisely what is delivered to your table and not necessarily an interpretation of an item you ordered.  In ordering the grilled Angus petite filet with pommes frites, we expected traditional French fried potatoes–not necessarily thickly cut but certainly not elongated, thinly-cut shoestring potatoes.  Ordinarily shoestring potatoes are fine, but they are absolutely wasted on some of the best restaurant ketchup we’ve had in years.  “Judy’s Catsup,” named for co-owner Judith. Ebbinghaus, is so good we picked up a bottle when we left.

Baby Arugula Salad

As for the grilled Angus petite filet, there’s accuracy and truth in the menu.  It’s most definitely petite, probably no more than five or six ounces.  It’s also swimming in a pool of thyme demiglace.  Thyme, with its light bouquet, probably gained more notoriety from Scarborough Fair, the Simon & Garfunkel song, than it has from any items with which it’s prepared.  Because thyme has a faintly lemony flavor and light bouquet, it’s not an overpowering culinary herb.  Had it been rendered from just about any other herb, the demiglace would have obfuscated the flavor of the filet entirely.

Salads, some of the most creative and delicious in town, are always a good bet at Santacafe.  The Baby Arugula Salad is our favorite, a large plate splayed with a mound of baby arugula crowned with a single Spanish goat cheese croquette, pears, Chimayo red chile candied pecans and pomegranate seeds drizzled with a pomegranate vinaigrette.  The distinctive peppery flavors of adult arugula are diminished somewhat on baby arugula, but you’ll likely be focusing on the harmony of the many complementary ingredients on this salad.

Award-Winning Chocolate Mousse

For some reason, the highlight of our visits to Santacafe tends to be the restaurant’s decadent and delightful desserts.  A half dozen tempting treats are available for your postprandial pleasure.  Make sure the one you order if you’re only having one is the award-winning chocolate mousse, an “adult” chocolate mold stuffed with a thick mousse on a plate decorated with a blood orange-caramelized pineapple glaze and Grand Marnier whipped cream topped with red chile candied pecans.  It’s one of my very favorite desserts in New Mexico, a dessert worth doing several hundred extra sit-ups for (and I hate sit-ups).

For my Kim, sweltering summer days are the best excuse for her favorite dessert of all–ice cream or any of its relatives.  In Santacafe’s sorbet trio, she may have found her very favorite.  That terrific trio showcases the fruity deliciousness of mango, lemon and raspberry, all made on the premises and each idealizing the native flavors of the fruits from which they are made.  She enjoys the sorbet trio so much, she gives me the three accompanying old-fashioned cookies so the cookies don’t interrupt her enjoyment of the sorbet.

Sorbet Trio

My niece long ago came to the realization that Santa Cafe isn’t Santa’s Cafe.  She’s also come to the realization that Santacafe is a gift that keeps on giving and has been doing so for more than three decades.

Santacafe
231 Washington Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 984-1788
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Chocolate Mousse, Sorbet Trio, Mexican Braised Beef & Chorizo Quesadilla, Grilled Angus Petite Filet, Baby Arugula Salad, Bread

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La Choza Restaurant – Santa Fe, New Mexico

La Choza, one of Santa Fe’s (and the state’s) very best New Mexican restaurants

I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.”
~ Vincent Van Gogh

Using bold and furious brushstrokes and striking colors, Van Gogh created a painting intended to depict humanity at its lowest point.  Calling it “Night Cafe” he described it as “…one of the ugliest I have ever done, a collection of clashing colors in the dreariest atmosphere.”  To New Mexicans, the notion of red and green being ugly, dreary and clashing in any way is a heretical concept.  For denizens of the Land of Enchantment, red and green are absolutely stunning especially when plated together over blue corn enchiladas, roasted green chiles stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese or sopaipillas engorged with beans and ground beef.  Red and green chile are why New Mexicans celebrate “Christmas” every day of the year.

Unlike the dreary and ugly cafe of Van Gogh’s painting, New Mexico’s restaurants tend to be spectacular, especially  when their ambiance is perfumed by the wondrous wafting of chile simmering over a stove.  This rapturous redolence is the essence of enchantment, a veritable aphrodisiac to chile lovers everywhere.  Very few restaurants prepare red and green chile as well as Santa Fe’s La Choza, an inviting domicile of deliciousness near the intersection of St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road, the city’s two most well-traveled thoroughfares.

One of the colorful dining rooms at La Choza

La Choza is housed in the adobe edifice that was the home and bunkhouse for the Mercer Ranch, a turn-of-the-century (19th) home. Translated from Spanish, La Choza means “the shed” and that’s not a coincidence since it is the sister restaurant of The Shed, one of Santa Fe’s most popular and highly regarded dining establishments of any genre. Similar to its elder sibling, La Choza celebrates New Mexico’s culinary heritage with some of the very best homestyle cooking you’ll find anywhere in the state. It has specialized in the cuisine of northern New Mexico since 1984.

As with its sibling, you may have to wait a while to be escorted to a free table. Patio dining in the summer and dining by the aromatic fire of a wood-burning stove in the winter make it an every season favorite. Also like The Shed, La Choza has enjoyed the national television spotlight. In May, 2014, the Travel Channel’s “Chow Masters” program aired an episode entitled “Santa Fe Burritos” in which three purveyors of bounteous burritos were pitted in a piquant melee: La Choza and Dr. Field Goods Kitchen in Santa Fe and Hurricane’s Cafe in Albuquerque. Judging was based on creativity and flavor. The ten thousand dollar burrito winner was Dr. Field Goods who wowed the judges with a smoked goat chimichanga in mole. Many locals would argue that La Choza’s offering, its famous chile relleno burrito, should at least have garnered a tie.

Chips and Salsa

Undoubtedly by design, La Choza has much to look at while you wait for your order to be filled though it’s hard to pry your eyes off the menu where temptation awaits.  The ambiance isn’t what might be characterized as stereotypical New Mexican. In fact, you’d have to call it a “fusion” of cultures, mostly Latino though my Swedish bride swears some of the decorative flower paintings came from her ancestral homeland. You might also see what may well be Peruvian and Mexican influenced artwork and swaths of fabric hanging from the ceiling that look as if they came right out of Saudi Arabia. It’s an interesting montage.

There’s no mistaking the menu for anything but New Mexican cuisine though some items are non-traditional (such as green chile clam chowder and fresh mushroom soup). Portions are generous, but no so large that you can’t have salsa and chips and a dessert, too. La Choza’s menu is close to identical to The Shed’s, even following a long-time Shed tradition of serving a thick slice of French bread with entrees (you can opt for a sopaipilla or tortilla instead). Most entrees also include beans and (or) posole, both of which are cooked with pork unless otherwise requested.

Stuffed sopaipillas with some of the best red chile in New Mexico

Stuffed sopaipillas with some of the best red chile in New Mexico

The salsa and chips are outstanding. The salsa features lush red tomatoes redolent with pungent green chile and a liberal application of cilantro. It has a slightly sweet aftertaste. You’ll run out of salsa before you run out of the warm blue and yellow corn tortilla chips.  The chips are relatively thin, but are unfailingly crisp, low in salt and are formidable enough to scoop up Gil-sized portions of salsa.

The red chile at the Santa Fe restaurants is brick red and deeply earthy with a slightly sweet taste you remember long after your meal–so good you might never order the restaurant’s green chile (which would be a mistake because the green chile is outstanding in its own right). Still, the red chile is the quintessential New Mexico chile–the result of the ownership purchasing the entire chile bounty of two Hatch, New Mexico chile fields. Red chile is ground every day in the restaurant’s mills to prevent oxidization and ensure freshness.

Combination Plate with Carne Adovada, Soft Taco and Chicken Taquito

Served atop stuffed sopaipillas, generous coverage of red chile overflows onto the Spanish rice and refried beans and for that you’ll be grateful. Honestly, only at Mary & Tito’s will you find a chile anywhere quite as wonderful. The stuffed sopaipilla is engorged with pinto beans and your choice of spicy ground beef or chicken, both of which are terrific. The refried beans are among the very best you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico, so good they’ll convert you even if you disdain beans.

25 May 2015: The carne adovada burrito is fork tender with a profundity of earthiness permeating each wonderful shard of each tender tendril of porcine perfection bathed in red chile. Red cubes are marinated in La Choza’s unique blend of red chile pods and seasoned with just a tad of garlic and oregano.   If you’d prefer to have your adovada sans burrito, the carne adovada plate is your hook-up.  My Kim rates La Choza’s carne adovada alongside her favorites at Mary & Tito’s and Perea’s Tijuana Bar & Restaurant

Blue Corn Enchilada Plate (Red and Green)

25 May 2015: In 2007, Science Daily revealed that blue corn tortillas are healthier than their white counterparts, especially for dieters and diabetics.  Scientists discovered that blue corn tortillas had less starch and a lower glycemic index than white tortillas.  New Mexicans probably don’t think about this as they’re enjoying the sweeter, nuttier flavor of beautiful blue tortillas, especially when those tortillas serve as a canvas for enchiladas topped by red and green chile and an egg fried over easy.  As with all entrees at La Choza, the blue corn enchiladas are served hot, almost steaming.  It’s a nice touch.

El Choza’s pinto beans are slow-simmered and served just-off-the-stove warm. It’s no wonder they’re the most traditional New Mexican comfort dish and one of New Mexico’s two official state vegetables. White corn posole with shards of pork (unless you request vegetarian) is just as wonderful.  In fact, very few New Mexican restaurants serve posole quite as good.

Beans and Posole

La Choza’s dessert menu–and you’ve got to order dessert even after you consume sopaipillas with real honey–doesn’t include some favorites from The Shed. Absent from the menu is the lemon soufflé which Food Network celebrity Rachael Ray called “divine and delicate.” Rather than bemoaning what is left off the dessert menu, celebrate the wonderful options remaining–such as homemade French apple pie topped with a profusion of chopped walnuts, cheesecake (a creamy filling on Zwieback crust with a sour cream vanilla topping), hot fudge sundae (yum, dark chocolate on rich vanilla ice cream), red raspberry sundae (fresh frozen raspberries on rich vanilla ice cream) and perhaps the best of all, the Mocha Cake.

The Mocha Cake is something special. It’s a blend of coffee and dark chocolate mousse frozen cake topped with fresh whipped cream. It’s only semi-sweet and not quite big enough to share, but it is absolutely luscious, easily among the very best desserts in Santa Fe.  Alas, it’s so good, I’ve ordered it every single visit to La Choza and to The Shed so my experience with some of the other desserts is solely hearsay.

Mocha Cake

While perhaps not as celebrated as The Shed (which is situated in the touristy downtown area), La Choza is equal to, if not better than its sibling. It’s wholly unpretentious and caters more to locals. Best of all, it’s on the right side of the tracks no matter what side it’s on.

La Choza Restaurant
905 Alarid Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-0909
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, Enchilada Plate, Stuffed Sopaipilla, Carne Adovada Burrito, Mocha Cake

La Choza Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Chris’ Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Chris’ Cafe on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe

“Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy.
It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing.
It’s about honesty. It’s about identity.
~Louise Fresco (Scientist and Writer)

Santa Fe and its denizens are an accepting lot, open to new ideas and different ways of doing things. When such pioneers as Mark Miller at the Coyote Café and Ming Tsai at Santacafe began fusing other culinary styles, techniques and ingredients with the traditional foods of New Mexico, tradition didn’t go out the window. It helped birth a new genre—an evolutionary fusion that coalesced existing and diverse food cultures and invited experimentation with exotic and beguiling spices, sauces, fruits and produce as well as preparation techniques. More importantly to local tastes, New Southwestern cuisine introduced different chiles with their own invigorating personalities and varying degrees of piquancy.

New Southwestern cuisine isn’t for everybody. There are many New Mexicans who stubbornly resist any evolution of, or alteration to, the traditional foods with which they grew up. They express the sentiment that you shouldn’t mess with perfection and that New Mexican cuisine, especially our sacrosanct red and green chile, is absolutely perfect as it is. Fortunately, Santa Fe is blessed with a significant number of restaurants that continue to prepare and serve New Mexican cuisine in the traditional manner. One of the very best of this genre is Chris’ Cafe which opened its doors in 2012.

The homey interior of Chris’ Cafe

Scrawled on the window of Chris’ Café is the statement “Traditional Northern New Mexico breakfast and lunch.” As if to emphasize that point, those words are superimposed over the Zia sun symbol representing the state flag of the Land of Enchantment. This isn’t owner Chris Valdez’s way of declaring war on the avant-garde movement deeply ingrained in Santa Fe’s culinary culture. It’s his way of honoring the sacrosanct traditions with which he was raised–deep-rooted traditions which go back generations. These are the traditions which counterbalance the nouveau trends which spawned the hybrid genre of Southwest cuisine.  In Santa Fe, there’s enough room for both.

If the name Chris Valdez sounds familiar, you likely ran into him at the Tecolote Café where he served as general manager for several years…and if you never visited the Tecolote Café, you probably saw him on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (DDD) program. In December, 2007, Guy Fieri and the Triple D crew spent 23 hours over a two-day period at the restaurant. Chris was the consummate host, teaching Fieri how to prepare red and green chile Tecolote style and getting Fieri hooked on the restaurant’s addictive blue corn atole pancakes.

Owner Chris Valdez and his daughter Marissa

After leaving the Tecolote Café, Chris toyed with the idea of launching a hamburger restaurant and even found a perfect spot for his concept, but non-compete agreement (#$%*&! Burger King) in the area prevented him from opening. Months later while driving on Cerrillos, he chanced upon a recently closed restaurant space that had housed several failed restaurant efforts. Chris was confident he could prepare and serve the high quality food which would make the restaurant a success.

Although his challenge was exacerbated by the fact that the restaurant space is obfuscated from the heavily trafficked Cerrillos by the huge yellow fleet of a Penske truck rental company, Chris had culled such a loyal following from his tenure at the Tecolote, that in short order, his new restaurant started to gain a following.  Today, the throngs that visit Chris’ Cafe are a combination of regulars and guests from some of the nearby hotels and motels.

Chips and Salsa

To know Chris even a little bit is to know a man consumed by the need to please.  He takes to heart any negative reviews posted on Yelp, Urbanspoon or TripAdvisor with the attitude that all feedback is a gift.  To him, it’s also an opportunity to continually improve and not rest on the laurels bestowed by most respondents to feedback providers.  Take a gander at the three aforementioned restaurant review sites and you’ll see that most of his guests are more than satisfied with all aspects of their experience at Chris’ Cafe.  You can’t please everyone, but that doesn’t stop Chris from trying.

Chris’s customer orientation is mirrored by his staff, many of whom come from the ranks of family and friends.  His lovely and gracious daughter Marissa inherited her dad’s ambassadorial qualities.  She flits from table to table, ensuring coffee is replenished, providing recommendations when asked and generally making sure all guest needs are attended to.  If Chris isn’t out and about ensuring the larders are replete with fresh, healthy ingredients, he’s glad-handing with his guests, many of whom he knows by name. In many ways, it’s like dining at home.

Pork Chop Adovada

Forgive the cliche, but perhaps the only thing warmer than the service is the coffee, a medium-roast blend from Guatemala. It’s a coffee with assertiveness and personality. That makes it a perfect pairing for the salsa, a salsa which bites back and whose own heat is exaggerated by the hot coffee.  Coupled with yellow, red and blue chips, the salsa is addictive and is easily the most piquant item we enjoyed during our inaugural visit.  The chips aren’t especially thick, but they’re formidable enough for Gil-sized portions of salsa. 

Generally when we think of carne adovada, our mouths water as we contemplate cubed pork marinated in red chile caribe then slow-cooked in the oven, stove top or in a crock-pot for several hours until so tender that tendrils break away easily.  Chris’ Cafe demonstrates the versatility of carne adovada by marinating pork chops in that paragon of deliciousness then grilling those chops.  Served one or two per order (you’ll regret it if you don’t order two), the pork chop adovada plate shows the versatility of carne adovada while enhancing pork chops.  The plate is served with two eggs, a flour tortilla and home fries.

The Randolph

If early morning finds you famished, let The Randolph quell your appetite.  The Randolph is the largest plate on the menu which aptly describes it as “a mountain of potatoes, Frito’s corn chips, beans, chile and cheese topped with two eggs.  As if that’s not enough, it’s available with your choice of carne adovada, ground beef or chicken.  As you scale the potato mountain, you’ll be grateful these terrific tubers are cubed home fries and not out-of-the-bag hash browns.  The home fries are topped with what is essentially a Frito pie and two eggs served the way you want them.  Blanket the mountain with both red and green chile, equal in piquancy and one just about as delicious as the other.  This is one of the best breakfast entrees in New Mexico and this statement would be true even if you scratched the word “breakfast.”

Sweet eats–hot cakes, French toast and cinnamon French toast–are also available on the breakfast menu.  A single hot cake is roughly the size of an unidentified craft seen hovering around the Roswell area in 1947.  Slather on some butter, douse it in hot syrup and you’re ready to share it with one or five best friends (did I mention it’s rather large?).  One thing you won’t find on the menu are the blue corn atole pancakes made famous at the Tecolote Cafe.  It’s pretty clear Chris’ Cafe isn’t a reincarnation of the Tecolote.  It’s better!

One giant pancake

It’s pretty much a given that those among us who prefer traditional to avant-garde will love Chris’ Cafe, but in truth, it’s a restaurant everyone who appreciates great food and terrific service will love. Chris’ Cafe is a paragon of deliciousness in a small strip mall.

Chris’ Cafe
3568 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 424-3566
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: The Randolph, Pancakes, Salsa and Chips, Pork Chop Adovada

Chris' Cafe on Urbanspoon