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Orlando’s New Mexican Cafe – Taos, New Mexico

Orlando's Marquee Bids All Welcome?

Orlando’s Marquee Bids All Welcome?

During his 2005 visit to Taos for the taping of the Food Network’s Food Nation program, über-celebrity chef Bobby Flay, likely the best known grill chef in the world, probably didn’t do as much to put Orlando’s New Mexican restaurant on the culinary map as you might think. Ditto for all the many first place awards hanging on the restaurant’s walls–“Best Mexican Food in Taos County” every year since 2005, best red chile, best green chile, and more than 25 other awards.  Flay’s visit and the accolades on the wall are merely validation of what locals and visitors in the know have long known: Orlando’s is a “must visit” dining destination in Taos.

Located in El Prado, a “suburb” of Taos about two miles northwest of the world-famous Taos Plaza, Orlando’s is as colorful a restaurant as you’ll find in Northern New Mexico.  Its marquee is that of a huarache-shod, mustachioed skeletal figure attired in a Mexican sombrero and serape.  In his left hand, he holds a bottle of hot sauce with the label “Taos.”  His bony right hand holds a skillet with a single flaming red chile, which does not–as some might surmise–denote the manner of his demise.

A meal at Orlando's is colorful and delicious

In the summer there’s no better venue than Orlando’s outdoors.

The skeletal figure has returned to this world for El Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  During this Mexican holiday, the profusion of skeletons of all sizes performing day-to-day activities signifies the return to this world of the dead who remain who they were when they lived, doing what they did.  For example, the skeletal figure on the marquee, would have been a Mexican cook in life.  Therefore in death, he remains a Mexican cook.  The marquee is typical of the fun and folly which emanates at every turn at Orlando’s.

Orlando’s is colorful all year round, but certainly more-so in the summer when nature lends a hand and Orlando’s is backdropped by incomparable cobalt blue skies graduating in depth of color the higher above the horizon you look.  Climbing toward the sky are deciduous trees in various verdant hues complemented by multicolored hollyhocks.  Large polychromatic umbrellas shade the metal grate tables in which diners enjoy an al-fresco repast with dishes even more colorful than the umbrellas.  On some winter days, weather permitting, Orlando’s fires up a raised fire pit outdoors for patrons who might have to wait for a seat.

Orlando's is one colorful restaurant

Orlando’s is one colorful restaurant

The restaurant itself is relatively small (perhaps 20 tables), essentially a cramped main dining room with what appears to be an adjourning closed-in patio.  Red ristras hang from the east-facing window while on the west-facing window sit glasses and candles adorned with the skeletal image on the marquee.  One wall includes more than two dozen framed “People’s Choice” awards celebrating the esteem in which Taos County residents hold Orlando’s.  A wooden statue of San Pasqual, the patron saint of kitchens, sits on a shelf above the wait staff’s counter where affable owner Orlando Ortega oversees the operation when he’s not glad-handing with customers.  Desserts are on display under glass in a unique glass cabinet.

Progressive Spanish (unlike any New Mexican music I’ve ever heard) is continuously piped in through speakers strategically placed throughout the restaurant. As colorful and interesting as the interior restaurant is, weather permitting, you absolutely have to dine out-of-doors under one of the restaurant’s colorful umbrellas where the shade will shield you from the heat of the day while allowing you to bask under the most gloriously blue skies anywhere.

Red, yellow and blue corn tortillas with salsa at Orlando's

Red, yellow and blue corn tortillas with salsa at Orlando’s

Shortly after menus are brought to your table, your dining experience begins in a colorful and delicious manner. Orlando’s salsa, served with red, yellow and blue corn tortilla chips may be the most piquant item Orlando serves. It is also one of the most beautiful salsas you’ll ever see at any restaurant. Rich red tomatoes, pearlescent onions and verdant cilantro decorate the salsa dish. For a mere pittance more, order the trio of salsa, chips and guacamole and your table will be graced with an edible and mouth-watering table decoration.

The salsa and chips are no longer complimentary.  In fact, at $3.50 an order, they’re the least expensive appetizer on the menu, but well worth the price.  Other appetizers include nachos (with or without beef), papas Y chile (a bowl of beer-battered French fries smothered with red chile, green chile or chile caribe topped with Jack and Cheddar cheese and tomatoes) and a quesadilla.  Save for the salsa and chips, the appetizers are priced comparably to entrees.

Shrimp is one of the most popular ingredients on the menu, found in three entrees.  Baja style fish tacos filled with deep-fried cod provide another seafood option.  Some of the very best entrees on the menu can certainly be considered unique, not your standard New Mexican fare.  Bobby Flay happened upon one such entree–Orlando’s grilled carne adovada.

Los Colores (Three rolled blue corn enchiladas, one chicken with green chile, one beef with red chile, and one cheese with chile caribe.  Served with beans and posole.

Los Colores (Three rolled blue corn enchiladas, one chicken with green chile, one beef with red chile, and one cheese with chile caribe. Served with beans and posole.

Orlando’s carne adovada plate features three grilled, quarter-inch thick marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe and served with mouth-watering posole, pinto beans and a tortilla. What makes the carne adovada unconventional is that it isn’t shredded (desebrada) as it is in most New Mexican restaurants. What makes it special is the chile caribe, a chile preparation style practiced for hundreds of years in Northern New Mexico.

The carne adovada has a smoky grilled taste inherited after only two minutes per side on a pre-heated grill.  On high, the pork medallions cook quickly and remain moist.  Chile caribe is a concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency.  It’s a staple in Northern New Mexican homes and some restaurants, but perhaps nowhere as thoroughly integrated into the menu as at Orlando’s.  During his visit, Bobby Flay learned and published on Food TV’s Web site, Orlando Ortega’s secrets for some of the best (albeit unconventional) carne adovada in New Mexico.

Grilled Carne Adovada - three grilled marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe.  Served with beans, posole and a flour tortilla.

Grilled Carne Adovada – three grilled marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe. Served with beans, posole and a flour tortilla.

Even though Orlando’s chile caribe isn’t necessarily overly piquant, the menu does disavow responsibility for chile which might be too hot (a necessary warning for tourists (and my sister in Phoenix) who can’t stomach anything more piquant than Chef Boyardee tomato sauce). If anything, the chile caribe might be too good. It is highly flavorful, mildly piquant and absolutely delicious–a concentration of the wonderful flavors we love in chile.

The carne adovada plate is served with pinto beans and posole, both of which are quie good (even though the posole has more than a hint of cumin).  If I have one complaint about these terrific standards, it’s that we weren’t provided with a spoon.  A fork just doesn’t cut it when you want to consume the bean “juice” and you’ll want to finish off every trace of these perfectly prepared whole pintos.  Both beans and posole are also lightly salted, a real plus considering other restaurants’ beans and posole could stand some desalinization.

To blue corn tacos stuffed with shredded beef topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions with a bowl of salsa

Two blue corn tacos stuffed with shredded beef topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions with a bowl of salsa

Rarely, if ever do I compliment the traditional garnish which decorates many New Mexican platters, but Orlando’s tomato and lettuce garnish warrants accolades. The tomatoes are at the peak of their edible lives, a rich red color that complements the shredded lettuce which also seems to be preternaturally green.  This garnish is not of the “molting” variety some restaurants shamefully present to their diners.

There’s a reason “Los Colores” (the colors) is Orlando’s most popular entree.  This entree–comprised of three rolled blue corn enchiladas: one chicken with green chile,one beef with red chile and one cheese with chile caribe–is absolutely terrific, among the very best enchiladas you’ll find anywhere.  Invariably the three chiles end up mixing with each other, but that’s not a bad thing since they’re all quite good, albeit only just above mild on a piquancy scale.

Buffalo enchiladas on blue corn tortillas covered with chile caribe and served with beans and posole.

The beef in the beef enchilada is shredded, not ground beef as Taco Bell caliber restaurants use.  The ground beef is marinated and well-seasoned so that its deliciousness is independent of the red chile atop it.  That red chile is a dark red, characteristic of excellent chile which hasn’t been adulterated by a profusion of corn starch or other thickening agents.  It’s a pure, delicious and wonderful chile, the way it should be prepared.

The green chile is perhaps the least piquant of the three, but it has a sweet, smoky flavor you’ll enjoy greatly.  The chicken is shredded and moist, mostly white meat.  The blue corn tortillas are a welcome treat and they’re perfectly prepared–easy to cut into with your fork and not greasy in the least.  I’ve had this entree in each of our three visits to Orlando’s and have yet to remember to ask for a fried egg atop, so mesmerized have I been by the vibrant colors and even more exciting flavors of an excellent enchiladas entree.

Frozen Avocado Pie, a fabulous dessert!

Frozen Avocado Pie, a fabulous dessert!

The shredded beef on the enchiladas is so good, you’ll want more of it.  Sate your fix with a couple of a la carte blue corn tacos which are overstuffed with shredded beef then topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions accompanied by a bowl of salsa.  These tacos are the antithesis of every greasy, ground beef taco you’ve ever had with a profusion of freshness and moistness you’ll enjoy.

Several dessert options are available (if you somehow have room), including biscochitos, the official state cookie of New Mexico. In keeping with its convention-defying nature, Orlando’s serves a dark- or white-chocolate dipped biscochito. The dark chocolate and the anise/cinnamon cookie go very well together.

An even more unconventional dessert is Orlando’s frozen avocado pie.  My Filipino friend Fred Guzman has long told me of the delicious dessert potential of avocados and I’ve long enjoyed avocado shakes at Vietnamese restaurants, but an avocado pie is something my well-practiced palate had heretofore not tried.  It had me at first bite.  Not quite frozen as its name implies, the Graham cracker crusted pie is imbued with the taste complements of fresh avocado and lime.  This pie is not quite as lip-puckering as key lime pie or as rich as guacamole, but seems to inherit the best qualities of both.  This is a must have dessert!

Orlando’s also serves an all-natural root beer bottled in Carrizozo, New Mexico called “Way 2 Cool Root Beer.” Like the restaurant, the root beer is too cool.

Orlando’s Northern New Mexican Cafe
1114 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Taos, NM
(575) 751-1450
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 August 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tres Colores Enchiladas, Grilled Carne Adobada, Shredded Beef Tacos, Frozen Avocado Pie, Biscochitos, Salsa and Chips

Orlando's New Mexican Cafe on Urbanspoon

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery – Taos, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery in Taos, New Mexico

In 1989, the tarantula hawk wasp was designated the official state insect of New Mexico, joining the roadrunner (state bird), whiptail lizard (state reptile),  spadefoot (state amphibian), Sandia Hairstreak (state butterfly),  Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (state fish) and the black bear (state animal) as official symbols of our great state.  Ostensibly the state legislature put aside partisan politics and selected these symbols after carefully weighing all options.  A case could certainly have been made for the dragonfly to represent New Mexico.

 Not only is the dragonfly a ubiquitous presence–flitting fluidly and gracefully like tiny fairies attired in wardrobes of many colors–they are omnipresent in local lore and legend.  In The Boy Who Made Dragonfly A Zuni Myth retold by New Mexico’s eminent author Tony Hillerman, the dragonfly represents a messenger between children and the gods.  The Zuni consider the dragonfly a shamanistic creature with supernatural powers while to the Navajo, the dragonfly represents pure water.

The front dining room at Dragonfly

Anyone who’s ever observed these multi-colored frequent fliers as they perform such spectacular aerial feats as loop-the-loops and flying backwards can’t help but be held spellbound by their grace and beauty.  It’s no wonder so many birdwatchers have  become dragonfly watchers that dragonflies have come to be known as “the birders’ insect.”  Spellbound is a good term for describing the Dragonfly Cafe And Bakery in Taos about which Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate advises, “don’t even think about eating breakfast/brunch anywhere else.”

The Dragonfly Cafe and Bakery was founded in 1998 by Karen Todd, a transplanted Chicagoan with decades of experience in restaurants and bakeries.  A world traveler and culinary student, Karen is intimately acquainted with the cuisine of many cultures, influences of which are apparent in her restaurant’s eclectic menu.  On Monday nights, the Dragonfly offers an East Indian menu while on Wednesdays, tapas and wine flights are featured fare. She calls her delightful slice of gustatory heaven a “European-style cafe and bakery.”   That’s especially accurate in that the Dragonfly is the type of community gathering place in which friends congregate for good food, good conversation and good times.  In the winter they cozy up next to the adobe fireplace in the front dining room and in the summer, they enjoy the verdant flora, bubbling fountains and occasional dragonfly in the courtyard.

A steaming bowl of kale and potato soup

The Dragonfly prides itself in using the highest quality ingredients–procured locally and grown organically when available–and hormone- and antibiotic-free dairy and non-cured meats.  Seasonal produce is picked fresh from the chef’s garden or is produced by small, local growers.  In the off-season, produce is preserved and pickled for year-round use.  Included among the restaurant’s diverse staples are kimchee, smoked fish, mushrooms, eggplant, corned beef buffalo and an award-winning granola.  The Dragonfly has a full-service coffee bar with an assortment of gourmet Mighty Leaf teas, organic soy milk and house-made chai tea. 

As with other Taos restaurants, the Bohemian spirit is alive and well at the Dragonfly, a cafe which is both homey and unconventional.  It’s relaxed and informal with a “laissez faire” element that appeals to the counter-culturalist remnants of the 60s but won’t turn off the corporate suits–or my old-fashioned 82-year-young mom who managed to find something to love amidst a menu she found a bit strange.  Most will enjoy the colorful confines of the 1920s bungalow style adobe which originally served as a family home complete with gardens, livestock and an orchard on the back of the property.  

Bibimbop: Two eggs over easy with brown rice, vegetables, kim chee, scallions and garlic chili sauce

In May, 2002, it wasn’t the Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery’s culinary diversity which was on display, but its mastery of Southwest-inspired dishes.  The event was the Food Network’s Food Nation program hosted by chef glitterati Bobby Flay who was in town to celebrate northern New Mexico culture.   Chef-owner Karen Dodd feted the superstar chef with an hors d’oeuvres menu which included such savory starters as tiny calabacitas cups bulging with green chile and roasted red peppers; fresh yellow corn and oregano goat cheese and red chile mousse daubed on garlic crostini; lamb and green onion brochettes partnered to a red chile yogurt dipping sauce and smoked trout dotted with watercress and aïoli on white corn tortillas.  Sumptuous sweets included cornmeal-piñon-orange shortbread; red chile-infused chocolate truffles; and apricot brown butter bars. Flay was effusive in his appreciation.

The daily menu may not be quite as Southwest-centric, but it is no less exciting.  On the date of our inaugural visit, the lunch menu was wonderfully multifarious, a deliciously diverse melange of Korean, Greek, New Mexican, Moroccan and Cajun dishes.  The dinner menu we perused is even more exciting, not a carbon copy of the lunch menu albeit with higher prices and slightly bigger portions.  The breakfast and brunch menus are highly regarded by my friend Larry McGoldrick whose recommendation you can trust.

Gyros: Marinated lamb with tzatziki sauce, hummus, tomato, red onion, cucumber, olives, feta and pita bread

Because our inaugural visit was on a blustery winter day, a comforting bowl of soup was in order.  The soup of the day was a kale and potato soup, a variation on the traditional Portuguese caldo verde.  Our server apprised us that the soup was spicy in a manner reminiscent of garam masala, a spice blend that’s really the heart of many Indian dishes.  A brimming bowl arrived at our table steaming hot with tangles of kale floating atop a fragrant vegetable broth redolent with a bouquet of exotic spices.  The soup’s fragrance foretold the deliciousness of the heart-warming soup.

One of the most intriguing items on the menu was a unique interpretation of a dish which made my top ten list of dishes I had in 2011–bibimbap, a Korean dish which literally translates to “mixed meal” in part because it’s constructed from sundry items often already prepared. As with Korean bibimbap, Dragonfly’s version starts with a large bowl of brown rice at the bottom of the bowl.  Atop the rice are sundry vegetables–zucchini, broccoli, julienned carrots, scallions and more as well as a generous dollop of pleasantly piquant garlic chili sauce.  Two eggs prepared to your exacting specifications cover much of the dish.  Mixing the melange is not only fun, but introduces all the elements to each other, forming a wondrous deliciousness in every bite.  You can add chicken, tofu or steak to the bibimbap if you wish, but they’re wholly unnecessary.

Organic Chicken Pot Pie

Another well interpreted dish worthy of its Greek origin are gyros, marinated lamb nestled in a warm pita and served with tzatziki sauce, hummus, tomato, red onion, cucumber, feta cheese and olives.  Unlike that served on gyros at many a Greek restaurant, the lamb is not shaved from a vertical spit nor is it an amalgam of lamb and beef.  It’s wonderfully seasoned and marinated lamb reminiscent of the shawarma offered at the magnificent San Pedro Middle East Restaurant.  The garlicky hummus and tzatziki are excellent as well.

Somewhat less exotic, but very good “mom” food is the organic chicken pot pie.  Atop the crust is a dragonfly shaped cut-out also made of crust.  Puncture the crust and you’re greeted with wisps of fragrant steam enticing you further.  Fill your forks with a bit of crust and as creamy a pot pie concoction as you’ll find anywhere.  It’s resplendent with vegetables and not just the conventional carrots and potatoes.  Dragonfly’s pot pie includes sweet potatoes and other delicious surprises.  The organic chicken is plentiful and it’s cut into bite-size pieces so you’re not left wondering where the poultry went.

The dessert platter, a bevy of bakery deliciousness

Even if you’re left full from the generously portioned entrees, you’ve got to make room for one of the Dragonfly’s award-winning (“Best of Taos” in 2006, 2008 and 2009 according to the Taos News).  The bakery goods are fresh, homemade, healthy and made in-house using local organic flour, sweet cream butter and natural sweeteners.  No corn syrup or hydrogenated oils are used.  Your server will bring by a platter brimming with some of the bakery treasures: fruit galettes, tarts, brownies, cookies, chocolate eclairs, cheesecakes, bread pudding, coconut macaroons and truffles. Deciding what to have is nearly as challenging as some of the Taos Ski Valley’s exhilarating runs.

One of the most exciting is a white chocolate and cherry bread pudding, the best I’ve had in Taos county other than my mom’s caprirotada.  The warm gooeyness of the melting white chocolate, the tart-sweet cherries and the custard-like texture elevate this humble, moist dessert into an excellent rendition of my favorite dessert.  

The Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery is right at home in an area replete with art galleries and Karen Todd is every bit the artist as are  the much celebrated Taos art colony denizens.  Instead of a gallery, she creates her art in the kitchen.  Her restaurant and bakery are not to be missed.

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery
402 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bibimbop, Lamb Gyros, Organic Chicken Pot Pie, Macaroon, Cherry & White Chocolate Bread Pudding, Dulce de Leche Tart

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery on Urbanspoon

Joseph’s Table – Taos, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Hotel La Fonda de Taos, home of Joseph's Table

The Hotel La Fonda in Taos Plaza is home to Joseph's Table

When chef and owner Joseph Wrede launched Joseph’s Table several years ago in Ranchos De Taos,dining patrons and pedantic critics alike were ready to beatify him (a culinary Saint Joseph). In 2000, Food & Wine magazine named him one of the top ten chefs in America, extolling his use of locally grown organic produce in “surprising, sensual ways.” The London Times called him “the voice of modern American cuisine.” Even Food Network luminary Bobby Flay came calling during a visit to Taos. On June 28, 2002, Wrede closed his restaurant to contemplate the lucrative lure of a corporate chef position. The Taos culinary world breathed a collective sigh of relief when he launched his new restaurant in December, 2003.

Housed in the historic La Fonda Hotel, his new dining room is artistically inspired and bathed in vivid colors on which enormous hand-painted tulips and butterflies crafted by his wife provide a whimsical refrain. Flowing, elegant tapestries reminiscent of a Sultan’s tent titivate the walls. Along the back wall are several semi-private chambers the wait staff refer to as “love shacks.” As artistic as the ambience is, it is the congruence of the chef’s menu items that are the true masterpieces–at least the items on the frequently-changing dinner menu.

Joseph's Table

Joseph's Table

Perhaps engaging in his own “iron chef” challenge of preparing seven distinct menu items from one ingredient, chef Wrede’s “seven way lucky duck” dinner entree includes duck breast (with just enough fat for flavor), broth, confit, chicharrones, mousse, aspic and foie gras with corn crème brulee. With its citrus influence, the duck broth makes the other items sing. Even the foie gras, the preference for which is generally an acquired taste, is wonderful. The crème brulee is a sweet piece of heaven, albeit served in a small ramekin.

Another dinner entree nonpareil is Wrede’s American steak au Poivre, a peppercorn crusted organic maverick beef tenderloin on smashed potatoes with Madiera mix mushroom sauce. With the characteristic tenderness of an excellent slab of beef, the steak melded complementary flavors that prove more than palate pleasing. The smashed potatoes are a creamy accompaniment.

Our inaugural lunch experience at Joseph’s Table was as disappointing as our first dinner venture was memorable. While I rated our dinner “24” (placing it among my highest rated restaurants in New Mexico), our lunch meal warranted perhaps a rating of “17” and that may be generous. We were alarmed at the disparity.

A listing of local lamb and local green chile stew was too tempting to pass up. Thankfully it isn’t a good representative of local organic cuisine. The “green chile stew” was more akin to a vegetable stew with potatoes, carrots and celery with nary a piece of lamb. Worse, it was served warm with a green chile as piquant as a bell pepper (zero on the Scoville scale). Two pieces of sweet and delicious roasted cornbread were this appetizer’s saving grace.

A salad fashioned with organic mixed greens, five nuts, Manchego (a wonderfully sharp cheese), apples and Tarragon vinaigrette exemplifies the creativity for which Wrede is renown. Alas, as magnificent as this leafy concoction was, it was almost too small to split as we often do with gourmet salads. The sweetness and tartness of the apple contrasted wonderfully with the sharpness of the Manchego while the dressing pulled it all together oh so well. We surmised that the “five nuts” referred to on the menu celebrated the total number of nuts in the entire salad because the only nut we could find was pistachio–and there wasn’t many of those.

An entree of organic turkey enchiladas with white Cheddar and homemade tortillas was a poor example of an entree made so well throughout Taos county. Crusty homemade flour tortillas proved a poor base for stacked enchiladas drowning in a tasteless chile (okay, it may have had a little bite to it). Much better was the grilled pizza with caramelized onions, bacon and Danish gouda. The crust was as thin as traditional Armenian flat bread while the sweet onions worked oh so well with the not too sharp gouda and salty bacon. It was the best item we had during our lunch visit.

Until Joseph’s Table improves its lunch fare, I’m not so sure Chef Wrede warrants beatification. His formidable talent and impeccable reputation demand no less.

NOTE: Joseph’s Table closed its doors in May, 2010.

Joseph’s Table
108A South Taos Plaza
Taos, NM
LATEST VISIT: 8 May 2004
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Seven Way Lucky Duck, American Steak au Poivre