Old Martina’s Hall – Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos

Between the years 2000 and 2014, The Taos News had the prestigious distinction of being named the best weekly newspaper in the United States by the National Newspaper Association. Although the most famous words in American journalism–“all the news that’s fit to print”–don’t grace its masthead, The Taos News has fairly and objectively reported news of events and personalities that seemingly can exist only in Taos county. Readers like me marveled at the periodical’s ability to refrain from punchline-pocked cynicism when, for a couple of years, three topics perhaps more appropriate for Jerry Springer or The National Inquirer ostensibly dominated the front page.

One topic was the dysfunctional shenanigans of the Questa school board, the behavior of whom warranted a state-mandated suspension. Another was the hubris and arrogance of the five-member Taos County Commission who, despite a spate of unpopular decisions, thought enough of themselves that they named three new buildings in their own honor (so Bill Richardsonesque). The third topic which graced The Taos News repeatedly was that Commission’s refusal to issue a beer and wine license for Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, an absurd, self-serving drama that dragged on ad-nauseum. Obviously the second and third most news-worthy topics were interrelated, not an anomaly in a county historically replete with nepotism.

Bar at Old Martina’s

If that diatribe seems a bit rancorous toward Taos County, it’s not intended to be. Taos County has always been a quirky and special place, albeit long in patience and tolerance with duplicitous political wrangling. In 1981, Merilee Danneman wrote a book entitled Taos by the Tail, a collection of columns she wrote for The Taos News from 1974 through 1979. In her “nostalgic look back at a magical place in a time long ago,” Danneman attributes “everything I need to know about politics” to the Taos County Commission. It’s neither comforting nor funny to see that while the players have changed, political dynamics in Taos County remain the same. It’s the way it is and has always been in Taos County.

By denying a beer and wine license on the grounds of Old Martina’s Hall proximity to the San Francisco de Asis Church, perhaps the County Commission thought themselves to be taking a higher moral ground than previous Commissions. Factors such as precedence and history didn’t seem to matter to these paragons of virtue. You certainly didn’t see any “excuse me while I save the world” righteous indignation on the part of previous Taos County Commissioners who, for generations, allowed the edifice to serve as a rowdy dance hall (and venue for Dennis Hopper’s wild parties).

Dining Room at Old Martina’s

Old Martina’s Hall dates back to 1790, predating the San Francisco de Asis Church by a quarter century.  Sitting directly across the street from the Church made famous by the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and the photographs of Ansel Adams, the stately adobe structure had fallen into disrepair and appeared ready to return to the dirt from which it was built.  That’s when an unlikely benefactor stepped in.  German cosmetic manufacturer and visionary entrepreneur Martina Gebhardt had visions of restoring the historic dance hall to its halcyon days as a community treasure, a milieu which had long served as the site of weddings and community gatherings. 

Martina spent more than two-million dollars renovating the long-derelict Old Martinez Hall, transforming the crumbling Pueblo Revival building into an enchanting edifice with massive adobe walls and stout viga-and-latilla ceilings.  Though her efforts weren’t universally appreciated, she persevered and after years of contentiousness (and the antics of the Taos County Commissioners), Old Martina’s Hall reopened in 2012.  Renaming the venerable structure from Old Martinez Hall to Old Martina’s Hall was a small concession for restoring an important historical center of community life.

Healthful Minded Fruit Plate

The new Old Martina’s Hall is a magnificent structure inside and out, a perfect complement to the Spanish Colonial church across the street.  Imposing and stately from the outside, it’s a breath-taking experience at every turn when you step inside.  The front room is a combination bar and dining room with light and dark wooden accents throughout.  Bright lights stream into the main dining room where you’ll want a seat by the window facing the Church.  The capacious dance hall is a splendid venue for dinner and a show or dinner and dancing.  New Mexican art, including contemporary and venerable weavings, festoons the walls.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner menus offer a tempting variety of diverse and delicious delicious served in a unique casual-fine dining atmosphere.  Old Martina’s Web site describes the fare as a “marriage of refined European simplicity with traditional New Mexican dishes.”  The dinner menu showcases a number of fine-dining quality seafood (picture pan seared sea scallops with pomegranate beurre blanc, quinoa pilaf and shaved fennel) and chops (carnivores can’t resist rustic grilled Berkshire pork porterhouse with apple pinon green chile chutney mashed sweet potatoes and anise creamed spinach).

Duck Enchiladas with Posole

Lunch isn’t quite as elaborate (or expensive) and the menu is somewhat abbreviated, but you’re bound to find something exciting…and the accommodating wait staff may even allow you to order something from the breakfast menu.  For the calorically conscious diner, the Healthful Minded Fruit Plate (seasonal fruit served with Greek yogurt, housemade granola and honey comb) is a good choice.  Unlike so many yogurt-granola dishes, this one isn’t rot-your-teeth-sweet.  That’s courtesy of the Greek yogurt which is somewhat thicker and more sour than other yogurt.  Because it’s so sour, the contrast with the sweetness of fruit tends to be more pronounced.  A bit more granola would make this dish even more enjoyable.

Surely New Mexican colonials were no strangers to duck, but it seems that only relatively recently has duck  been widely incorporated in New Mexican dishes.  Though not as traditional on New Mexican entrees as are other proteins, duck certainly lends its unique and delicious flavor profile to any dish in which it’s used.  The duck enchiladas at Old Martina’s are superb!  Rolled blue corn tortillas are engorged with a generous amount of moist, flavorful duck and slathered in your choice of red or green chile (ask for both) unadulterated by cumin.  Both the red and green chile have a pleasant, but not incendiary, piquancy.  Melted white and yellow Cheddar lends a salty richness to the dish while the posole and whole beans are wonderful accompaniment.  A small dollop of guacamole leaves you wanting more.  Frankly, a bit more of everything served on this plate would have been more than welcome.

Pumpkin-Pecan Tart

Desserts are far from standard fare as you’ll see when your server ferries them over to your table.  Next to deciding which Taos County site you’ll visit next, determining which one to order may be the hardest decision of your day.  I couldn’t even default to my usual choice–ordering something I’ve never previously had–because several dessert items fit that criteria.  Ultimately it took a coin flip to settle on the pumpkin-pecan tart, a  miniature pie-shaped pastry resembling pecan pie.  Pecans and pumpkin go surprisingly well together, a melding of diverse flavor profiles that serve as flavor and textural foils for each other. 

If walls could talk, the massive walls at Old Martina’s Hall would probably sing out with alacrity as they once again play witness to family functions and celebrations Taos County-style.

Old Martina’s Hall
4140 Highway 68
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-3003
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Duck Enchiladas, Pumpkin-Pecan Tort, Healthful Minded Fruit Plate

Old Martina's Hall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Alley Cantina – Taos, New Mexico

The Alley Cantina just off the Plaza in Taos

In April, 2014, Gallup conducted a poll to determine state pride across the United States.  More precisely, the Gallup poll surveyed people in all 50 states to find out what percentage of residents say their state was the very best or one of the best places to live.  Sadly, New Mexico was rated the six worst state to live with only 28 percent of respondents indicating the Land of Enchantment was one of the best places to live. New Mexico was the only state among the bottom ten either not bordering or not East of the Mississippi River.

In recent years it seems every quality of life survey conducted lists New Mexico near the very bottom where we compete with Mississippi and Arkansas for “worst” in virtually every aspect of daily life.  So, what does it say about New Mexico when it is rated number one…that’s first…in the auspicious category of being “absolutely absorbed by the abnormal?”  To arrive at this rating, the Moveto Real Estate Blog actually used Facebook data to determine what percentage of each state’s population had an interest in the paranormal, psychic phenomena, conspiracy and shadow organizations and mythical creatures and mysterious beings.

The pet-friendly patio at the Alley Cantina

Research indicated that largely because of the mysterious UFO crash and subsequent cover-up in Roswell back in 1947, New Mexicans are more apt to believe in conspiracies, cover-ups and the Illuminati.  We, it seems, are also quite fascinated by cryptids (mythical creatures, mysterious beings, Chupacabra, etc) and psychic activity.  Only one state’s citizenry had a greater interest in the paranormal which one dictionary defines as “denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.”

Some of the state’s most active paranormal activity revolves around haunted Taos.  The aptly named The Ghosts of Taos blog believes ghosts are “as much a part of the landscape as the towering hollyhocks, dusty petunias, bancos, portals and adobe walls of Taos Plaza.”  One of the most famous of the Taos ghosts is Teresina Bent, daughter of the first governor of the newly acquired New Mexican Territory who was murdered during an uprising in Taos.  Teresina is said to haunt the Alley Cantina just north of the Taos Plaza.  Numerous sightings and incidents have been reported by both employees and guests.

Coconut Chicken Fingers with Apricot-Ginger Sauce and Celery Sticks

The Alley Cantina actually sits in the oldest building in Taos, a structure built in the 16th Century by Pueblo Indians.  The building initially served as an outpost along the Chihuahua Trail and was later occupied by the Spanish government.  In 1846, it became the office of the ill-fated Governor Bent whose family owned the building for several years.  The property became a restaurant in 1944 under the name “El Patio” and has continuously operated since then, becoming the Alley Cantina in 1997.  

In actuality, the entire building isn’t 400 years old, but large portions of the building remain from the original structure, including the south wall of the kitchen and the east wall of the kitchen and bathrooms (the tiniest bathrooms of any restaurant I’ve reviewed).   Despite the Lilliputian facilities (not enough room for you and for  Teserina Bent), the Alley Cantina is a beloved gathering place in Taos, earning several “Best of Taos County People’s Choice Awards.”  The menu is renowned for its New Mexican food (cumin alert: it’s on every item of New Mexican cuisine) as well as its barbecue and surprisingly, its fish and chips.

Green chile Cheeseburger with Fries

The Alley Cantina may also be known someday for its coconut chicken fingers served with an apricot-ginger dipping sauce and celery sticks.  The chicken fingers are somewhat thickly battered, a crispy exterior belying the moist, tender chicken inside.  While the crust has a pronounced coconut flavor, the generously plated chicken fingers (each one almost as large as the bathrooms) are elevated by the apricot-ginger dipping sauce.  It’s a sauce which should be bottled and sold.  Its personality is assertive without being overwhelming, tangy without being tart and aromatic without being perfume-like. 

Though it didn’t make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2011, the Alley’s version of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct burger is well worth ordering.  The canvas for this behemoth green chile cheeseburger  is a sesame seed bun with housemade qualities (our server couldn’t tell us who made it).  The burger is constructed with a rather sizable beef patty topped with chopped green chiles blanketed by your choice of Cheddar-Jack or Provolone cheese.  It’s a very good burger even though the green chile lacked the piquancy New Mexicans crave…or perhaps the piquancy was obfuscated by the thickness of the beef patty and the other ingredients (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles).  The burger is served with hand-cut fries.

Fish and Chips

It’s rather rare to find fish and chips in New Mexico described as “famous” as the ones at the Alley are.  As has been discussed on this blog, fish and chips in New Mexico are wholly unlike fish and chips in Great Britain where they’re made best.  The Alley’s fish and chips are, in many ways, a complete antithesis of those I enjoyed by the boatful in England.  First, they’re made from Pacific cod as opposed to Atlantic caught fish.  Secondly, they’re battered (sheathed is a better descriptor) rather thickly–so much so that malt vinegar won’t penetrate until you cut through the breading and expose the succulent white flesh.  That’s when you discover a pretty tasty, light and flaky fish that is surprisingly enjoyable. 

Perhaps if Gallup had conducted its poll at the Alley Cantina, respondents would have been more inclined to show their state pride.  Enjoying good food at a fun, pet-friendly patio would do that for you.

The Alley Cantina
121 Teresina Lane
Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-2121
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish and Chips, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Coconut Chicken Fingers

Alley Cantina on Urbanspoon

Stray Dog Cantina – Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Stray Dog Cantina at the Taos Ski Valley

There’s a rather ominous sign on the base of the Taos Ski Valley.  In bold red uppercase print, the sign reads “DON’T PANIC!,” a preface for somewhat more reassuring text: “YOU’RE LOOKING AT ONLY 1/30 OF TAOS SKI VALLEY.  WE HAVE MANY EASY RUNS TOO!”  To novice skiers, the steepness of the ski runs visible from the base may as well be the “I’d turn back if I were you” sign Dorothy and her friends encountered when they entered the Haunted Forest on the way to the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.  No doubt the less skilled schussers turn tail like the Cowardly Lion and head for flatter topography. 

There’s another boldface type warning at another Taos Ski Valley landmark.  This one is for the meek of taste bud and gastrointestinal system.  The menu at the Stray Dog Cantina warns “Caution: Our chile is not for amateurs.  It’s extra tasty, but it can be spicy – it is serious chile.”  It’s obvious this warning is intended primarily for out-of-state visitors unaccustomed to their food biting back.  For citizens of the Land of Enchantment, such a warning is akin to a red flag being waved at a charging bull.  We see it as a challenge, another test for our manliness (being the more mature and intelligent gender, women don’t fall for such challenges) and an opportunity to show off our asbestos-lined constitutions. Not to mention some of us really dig this stuff when it’s packing heat. Then there are others who believe pain is a flavor.

The Pet-Friendly Patio at Stray Dog Cantina

With a name such as Stray Dog Cantina, it’s only fitting that this long-time Taos Ski Valley apres-ski favorite is one of only two pet-friendly restaurants in the Taos area.  The genesis of the unique name seems to be consigned to history and, in fact, some regulars still refer to it as “Tim’s Place” while throughout the internet, references to “Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina” abound.  Tim would be co-founder Tim Harter who died in an avalanche while backcountry skiing beyond Taos Ski Valley boundaries in 1996.  

While the “Tim’s” portion of the name was removed in 2009 when Harter’s family sold the cantina, at least “Stray Dog”  portion seems a permanent fixture.  Fittingly, the women’s softball team sponsored by the Stray Dog is called the “Stray Bitches.”  Their trophies are on display on the first floor which is part dining room (complete with picnic tables and wooden benches) and all bar.  On one second story wall, you’ll find a painting of New Mexico’s most spectacular mountain, The Jicarita, by the delightful Leigh Gusterson.  The Jicarita which backdrops Peñasco (pandering to my hometown) is about 35 miles from the Taos Ski Valley.

Frito Pie

Save for closing for a few weeks in spring after ski season, The Stray Dog is open year-round.  The vibe is certainly different in the winter when pristine white powder blankets the area.  Our inaugural visit, about a month before the autumnal equinox, was a weekend escape from the heat of the Duke City.  It was a good 25 degrees cooler at the Taos Ski Valley, prompting some visitors to don attire more appropriate for the winter.  The pet-friendly patio hugs the Stray Dog and provides magnificent views of the towering evergreens.  The al fresco experience is heightened by the sound of water cascading along a babbling brook directly beneath the wooden planks of the patio. 

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Stray Dog offers an interesting menu replete with familiar New Mexican favorites and some unique creations heretofore unseen.  Red chile is sourced from Chimayo.  It’s a vegetarian chile ameliorated only by garlic and fresh vegetables.   All beef sold on the premises comes from New Mexico.  Among the more interesting dishes on the menu is the Hawaiian inspired Local Loco which is loosely patterned after the Aloha State’s “Loco Moco,” a dish many Spanish-speaking New Mexicans might find off-putting in that “moco” translates from Spanish to “mucus.”  You get the feeling the creator of Stray Dog’s menu knew this.

Green Chile Cheeseburger with Fries

Save for a unique starter named the “Mexican Suzie Sushi” (blue corn-battered chile relleno wrapped in a tortilla, cut like sushi and served on red or green chile), the appetizers are similar to those you’d find at many New Mexican restaurants.  Because the salsa was laced with hemlock…er, cumin, we opted out of anything on the appetizers menu and shared a Frito pie (a bowl of Frito’s corn chips topped with beans, red chile, cheese, onion, lettuce, chopped jalapeños and sour cream).  It was our first opportunity to sample the chile about which we were warned.  As surmised, that warning wasn’t intended for red (chile) blooded New Mexicans.  The only heat discernible came from the chopped jalapeños.  The purity and deliciousness of the chile made up for its lack of piquancy.  It’s a very tasty chile, the highlight of an otherwise good Frito pie. 

Though the Local Loco beckoned, as one of the quadrumvirate who put the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail together, it is always my patriotic duty to order a green chile cheeseburger, by far the most popular item on the menu (even among tourists).  The green chile cheeseburger is constructed with Angus beef which is topped with green chile blanketed by melted Cheddar cheese.  Both mayo and mustard are slathered on the top bun with pickles, onions and tomatoes on the side.  The hand-formed beef patty doesn’t quite cover the bun, but what there is of it is terrific, reminiscent of a grilled steak and what it lacks in circumference is more than made up for in thickness and deliciousness.  As with the red chile on the Frito pie, the green chile didn’t pack much of a punch.

Green Chile Stew with Side of Beans

In order to restore homeostasis under extreme conditions (sixty degrees with a stiff breeze), New Mexicans crave the salubrious elixir of green chile stew.  We crave it because it nurtures us with two types of heat–the heart-warming heat of cold-defeating temperature and the heat of piquancy.   The Stray Dog’s version must be very popular at winter, primarily because it helps offset the cold (and, who knows, visitors may even discern a piquant bite).  For us, the green chile, while flavorful, was rather insipid, lacking the second type of heat New Mexicans crave.  It’s not a bad green chile stew, but we would have enjoyed it more had it brought sweat to our brows and blisters to our tongues.  Available with chicken or pork (shredded), the green chile stew is cloaked in white and yellow Cheddar.   

While the warning about the chile was wholly unnecessary for us, those steep mountain trails almost make me thankful that knees wrecked from playing football can no longer schuss down precipitous mountain trails.  Whether or not you ski, the Stray Dog Cantina is a great place for relaxing in the company of your four-legged children.

Stray Dog Cantina
105 Sutton Place
Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico
(575) 776-2894
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Frito Pie, Green Chile Stew

Tim's Stray Dog Cantina on Urbanspoon

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