La Casa Sena – Santa Fe, New Mexico

La Casa Sena in Santa Fe

La Casa Sena in Santa Fe

He was an academic prodigy, one of the first two persons admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico.  He had a distinguished military career in the Union Army before being mustered out with the rank of Major.  He served as sheriff of Santa Fe county for more than ten years and was a political power broker for both the Republican and Independent parties.

Despite such an impressive pedigree, Civil War-hero Major Jose Sena might have been forgotten by the annals of history had it not been for his fabulous Territorial-style adobe house a block east of the Santa Fe Plaza.  A prime example of a Spanish hacienda, the stately home has 33 ground-level rooms arranged as a square around a garden patio with towering shade trees and a gurgling fountain.

Today Casa Sena is owned by prominent Santa Fe gallery owner Gerald Peters who has transformed what was once called home by Major Sena into a veritable art gallery with museum-quality landscapes on the walls, spectacular watercolor paintings in the outer rooms and hand-crafted Taos-style furniture throughout.  Casa Sena abounds in ambience, exemplifying “old Santa Fe” style.

Blue Corn Muffins with Green Chile

Blue Corn Muffins with Green Chile

Replete with shops, offices and one of Santa Fe’s most highly regarded restaurants, Sena Plaza gives visitors and residents alike a glimpse of what aristocratic family life in territorial Santa Fe must have been like in the 19th Century when Major Sena, his wife and their thirteen children lived there. It’s more than fitting that the restaurant, La Casa Sena, is named for the prominent family who once lived there, moreso when you consider that “sena” translates from Spanish to English as “meal.”

Weather permitting–usually April through October–there may be no more relaxing milieu for a meal than La Casa Sena’s patio which is surrounded by hollyhocks and other flowering shrubs as well as towering shade trees.  If the trees don’t provide sufficient shade, large, strategically positioned umbrellas will.

Perhaps cognizant of the fact that music not only has charms that sooth the savage breast, it helps with digestion (research indicates people take fewer forkfuls per minute when listening to slow rhythms), La Casa Sena’s Sunday brunch features the musical stylings of a classical guitarist.  Coupled with light breezes, rustling leaves and the mesmerizing rivulets of water gurgling from the water fountain, the music helps provide an ambience which is tranquil and relaxing.

Sauteed Mussels & Black Tiger Shrimp

Sauteed Mussels & Black Tiger Shrimp

Broadway show tunes are at the thematic core of the adjacent La Cantina where the talented waitstaff–comprised of experienced thespians and singers–belts out show tune as they foist platters from the kitchen to the table.  Musical meals are available every night of the year but Christmas.  Reservations are highly recommended.

Oenophiles as well as Wine Spectator esteem highly the nearly two-thousand vintages offered on the restaurant’s wine list.  The restaurant prides itself on food and wine pairings.  Its philosophy is that the wines should be appropriate for the food.  Most wines come from the United States, France and Spain.

In conceptualizing the restaurant’s cuisine, the goal when the restaurant was first launched decades ago was to serve the types of food which would have been served at Major Sena’s dinner table during a special occasion in the halcyon days of the great hacienda.  A more ambitious menu seems to indicate, as the terrific tome La Casa Sena: The Cuisine of Santa Fe confirms, that the question now asked is “what would Major Sena have served, had he had an airplane?”

La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict

La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict

Though some ingredients no doubt find their way to La Casa Sena by plane, train and automobile, many–such as the red chile–are procured locally as La Casa Sena endeavors to use indigenous ingredients wherever possible.  That distinctive chile is grown exclusively for the restaurant in a farm near Dixon where the shorter growing season imparts a uniquely delicate (translate that to tourist-friendly) flavor.

Local growers are the restaurant’s preferred suppliers for its eclectic Southwestern cuisine The New York Times described as “Northern New Mexican with a continental flair.”  The cuisine’s varied influences include Native American, Spanish, Mexican and European, a cultural hodgepodge that blends together to offer the restaurant’s guests a very good meal and an excellent dining experience.

La Casa Sena serves lunch and dinner seven days a week and brunch on Sunday.  Many of the items on the brunch menu were previously available on the restaurant’s breakfast menu though La Casa Sena hasn’t offered breakfast in years.  Still, the brunch menu is one of the city’s best in a city which specializes in breakfast and brunch.

Flap-Jack Griddle

Flap-Jack Griddle

Shortly after you’re escorted to your table and presented with the menu, a basket of blue corn muffins impregnated with just a tinge of red chile is delivered.  The muffins are only mildly sweet and the chile lacks piquancy, but they are moist and thoroughly delicious.  With or without pats of butter, you may want a second complementary batch.

The appetizers are an interesting mix of primarily New Mexican starters such as guacamole and green chile stew and seafood such as flash-fried crab cake.  A popular favorite that melds both New Mexican food and seafood is the sauteed mussels and black tiger shrimp in a broth of green chile-chipotle, cilantro, garlic and white wine.  The portion size is not profuse as served at some restaurants, merely a handful of shrimp and fewer than a dozen mussels.  It matters not as both the shrimp and mussels abound in flavor, particularly when imbued with the rich broth.  Now, that broth is something you will want more of–or at least you’ll want more of the lightly toasted bread with which to sop up that delicious broth.

Years ago at a long shuttered Taos restaurant named Jacquelina’s, I was introduced to a New Mexican twist on a popular breakfast and brunch favorite–Eggs Benedict with a green chile Hollandaise.  La Casa Sena’s brunch menu offers a transcendent, albeit slightly different version of that fondly recalled brunch offering.  La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict is crafted with Canadian bacon and poached egg blanketed by Chimayo red chile Hollandaise on a buttermilk biscuit.  It is served with smoked paprika red potatoes and is simply fantastic.

Sena Sampler green chile –pork tamale, tortilla crusted shrimp, asadero cheese – chicken flauta, mango salsa

Sena Sampler: Green chile –pork tamale, tortilla crusted shrimp, asadero cheese – chicken flauta, mango salsa

Sweet succor is also available for brunch in the form of a flap-jack griddle comprised of French toast, pecan waffles, blue pancakes, sweet butter and fresh berries.  All are quite good and fortuitously not even as big as one of those plate-filling short stacks some breakfast joints proffer.  The fruit is fresh and sweet, a perfect complement to the pure maple syrup.

New Mexicans will appreciate La Casa Sena’s interpretation of a New Mexican combination plate.  The Sena Sampler features a green chile pork tamale, tortilla crusted shrimp with a tangy mango salsa and a crispy chicken flauta.  The best of the lot is the green chile pork tamale which is draped atop a banana leaf.  The pork is shredded, tender and absolutely delicious with flavor pronouncements of smokiness and a slight citrus tanginess.  The tamale is adorned with a mild red chile and crema fresca, but it’s that pork that will enrapt you.  The tortilla crusted shrimp is sweet and flavorful, especially when coupled with the mango salsa which is flecked with finely chopped red and green peppers for contrast.

La Casa Sena has achieved fame far beyond New Mexico’s borders.  Legions of repeat visitors to Santa Fe make it one of the first restaurants they visit or to which they return.  In 2007, Food Network luminary Rachael Ray filmed a segment at the restaurant for her show Tasty Travels, but she wasn’t the first Food Network glitterati who fell captive to La Casa Sena’s charms.

Local organic grass-fed cheeseburger with green chile

Local organic grass-fed cheeseburger with green chile and steak-cut fries with smoked ketchup

Years prior to Rachael Ray’s visit, Bobby Flay featured the restaurant on Food Nation.  To this day he still credits the green chile cheeseburger at La Casa Sena as the most memorable burger he’s eaten from across the United States.  He enjoyed it so much that he revamped a version of it for his own restaurant, Mesa Grill.  Its flavors inspired the “Santa Fe burger” featured in Flay’s new cookbook, Burgers, Fries and Shakes.

Perhaps Flay was inspired by the local organic grass-fed beef used by La Casa Sena for their cheeseburger–beef that comes from cattle fed nothing but green grass and alfalfa hay.  The health benefits of organic grass-fed beef are well-documented.  What  is often understated is how tasty it is.  It’s an unctuous beef redolent with a more robust and “beefy” flavor, but with less marbling.  Casa Sena drapes what appears to be a half-pound beef patty with mild green chile which is blanketed with melted Asadero cheese, a creamy cheese with a light, fresh taste similar to fresh mozzarella.

The cheeseburger is thick enough to require two hands to hold, especially if you dress it with the plate accompaniment: lettuce, tomato and red onion.  Served with the cheeseburger are thick steak-cut fries with a smoked ketchup.  The smoked ketchup also goes well with the burger, but with the fries it zings.  It’s several orders of magnitude better than the standard and boring ketchup.

Chocolate Red Chile Soup, one of the very best desserts in New Mexico

Chocolate Red Chile Soup, one of the very best desserts in New Mexico

For dessert, one of several can’t miss offerings is a chocolate red chile soup in which swim a handful of honey-sugared pinons and fresh, halved strawberries.  This is an ambrosial sweet offering, one you won’t want to share, even with someone you love.  The “soup” is served cool and though it might be even better as cold as refrigerated pudding, it is quite wonderful.  The restaurant’s Chimayo red chile is barely perceptible, but that only allows the chocolate to shine all the more.

In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as  state’s very best uptown dessert  to the chocolate red chile soup at La Casa Sena.  It’s a well-deserved honor few would dispute.

There are many things about La Casa Sena that will inspire future visits.  It is simply a restaurant to be experienced…and to experience it is to love it.

La Casa Sena
125 East Palace
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 988-9232
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Chocolate Red Chile Soup, Flap-Jack Griddle, La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict, Sauteed Mussels & Black Tiger Shrimp, Blue Corn & Green Chile Muffins, Sena Sampler, Local organic grass-fed cheeseburger with green chile

La Casa Sena on Urbanspoon

The Shed – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The award winning Shed

The world famous Shed restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico

In the culinary world, the name James Beard is revered perhaps above all others. Considered the “Dean of American Cookery,” Beard established a legacy of culinary excellence and became a household name to generations of home cooks and professional chefs.

The cookbooks he authored between 1940 and 1983 are considered “a slice of American history” because those tomes span America’s culinary regions and served as a premonition of the global epicurean expanse to come.

Today, the James Beard Foundation, a national not-for-profit organization is dedicated to celebrating, preserving, and nurturing America’s culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence.

Guacamole, salsa and chips at The Shed in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Guacamole, salsa and chips at The Shed in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Earning a James Beard award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world. It’s the restaurant world’s equivalent of the Academy Award.

In 2003, The Shed restaurant earned the Foundation’s “America’s Classics Award,” a prestigious accolade honoring locally owned and operated regional restaurants that have withstood the test of time and are beloved in their communities.

The Foundation’s Web site describes The Shed as “A restaurant begun in a burro shed on a dusty alley in a then-sleepy little town might not sound as if it would be – 50 years later – hailed as a venerable institution. The Shed, though, has become the standard-setter for northern New Mexican fare, Santa Fe charm, and warm hospitality.”

Carne Adovada at the Shed, some of the very best in New Mexico

Carne Adovada at the Shed, some of the very best in New Mexico

The lobby’s multi-hued visual fodder makes it easy to miss the framed certificate commemorating the award, but you get the feeling the restaurant’s proprietors are okay with that. The Shed has been a family tradition–three generations of Carswells serving three generations of patrons–since it launched on July 4, 1953. Patrons queue up for as long as it takes to be seated in one of the restaurant’s nine rooms behind Prince Patio, a flagstone courtyard oasis drenched in sunlight and shaded by verdant vines. The Shed is housed in what was once a rambling adobe hacienda, circa 1692.

Mere steps away from the Santa Fe Plaza and an easy two blocks away from its original Burro Alley location, The Shed is a institution beloved not only by locals, but by tourists who continue to discover (or rediscover) it during sojourns to the City Different. A visit to The Shed is akin to a pilgrimage; it’s as if you’re visiting a sacred place and in a way, you really are. The Shed has been called “the soul of Santa Fe” and many patrons consider it the embodiment of Northern New Mexico hospitality and its unique cuisine–a harmonious and delicious convergence of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican influences.

Native New Mexicans returning home after a period of expatriation don’t consider themselves to be back home until they’ve had a meal featuring exceptional red and green chile. My wish would be for all New Mexicans returning to the Land of Enchantment to partake, as their first meal back, of The Shed’s exceptional chile. The red chile is brick red and deeply earthy with a slightly sweet taste you remember long after your meal. It’s the quintessential New Mexico chile–the result of the Carswells 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.

Blue corn enchiladas and a taco

Blue corn enchiladas and a taco

Traditional New Mexican entrees are served with blue corn tortillas, a perfect vehicle for some of the very best enchiladas in New Mexico. The enchilada and taco plate features one rolled, blue corn enchilada abounding in cheddar cheese and onion then covered in the aforementioned red chile. The soft blue corn taco is replete with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and lean ground beef marinated in red chile. It’s not the type of taco you eat with your hands; you eat it with a fork because it, too, is slathered with that oh so wonderful red chile.

The carne adovada is fork tender with a profundity of earthy flavor permeating each wonderful shard of the marinated pork cubes bathed in red chile. A thin flour tortilla makes a wonderful “spoon” into which to ladle mouthfuls of what may be some of the best carne adovada in the state.  Who says so?  For one, my friend Ruben Hendrickson who has made it a holy grail quest to find then duplicate the best carne adovada in New Mexico.  He places The Shed’s carne adovada in rarified company along with the carne adovada at Mary & Tito’s and Duran’s Central Pharmacy.

The green chile stew features roasted, perfectly pungent green chile, cubed potatoes (including the skin) and lean pieces of tender pork swimming in a rich, hearty broth. It’s New Mexican comfort food at its finest and may have you longing for a cold winter day in which it will warm your stomach–and the cockles of your heart.

Toasted French Bread instead of Sopaipillas - only at The Shed

Toasted French Bread instead of Sopaipillas - only at The Shed

Entrees are accompanied by slow-simmered pinto beans and white-corn posole as well as a thick slice of French garlic bread, a non-New Mexican tradition apparently begun in the Burro Alley days.  It’s one of those endearingly quirky things that only an outstanding New Mexican institution can get away with.  The bread comes in very handy when you want to sop up any remnants of red chile.

You’ll want to start your meal with the house guacamole, salsa and tortilla chips. The salsa features lush red tomatoes (not the mushy stuff out of a can) redolent with pungent green chile and a liberal application of cilantro. It has a slightly sweet aftertaste. The guacamole is buttery and delicious made with in-season avocado.

Despite being fully sated by profligate portions, The Shed’s patrons know they absolutely must have one of the restaurant’s luscious desserts, the most celebrated being the fresh lemon soufflé which Food Network celebrity Rachael Ray called “divine and delicate” and “worth two or three times its price.” The soufflé is indeed delicate. It is also light and frothy with an intensely creamy lemon flavor that may leave you swooning in contentment.

Mocha Cake

Mocha Cake

If possible, the mocha cake may be even better thanks to a special blend of coffee and dark chocolate mousse cake topped with fresh whipped cream. The mocha cake is served cold, but it’ll warm within the confines of your mouth.

Perhaps in keeping with the loveably quaint, uniquely The Shed tradition of serving French garlic bread with your meal, the dessert menu also includes an international twist, an Italian dessert called zabaglione, a creamy custard made with Cointreau and white port.  Cointreau, an orange flavored liqueur, enlivens the custard in the ways a good liqueur punctuates a great meal.

Zabaglione has been described as “one of Italy’s great gifts to the rest of the world,” an apt description.  Considering the well-earned reputation and flawless execution of its desserts, it didn’t surprise me that the zabaglione at The Shed is better than you’ll find in many Italian restaurants.

Zabaglione, some of the very best in town

Zabaglione, some of the very best in town

Being situated so close to the tourist laden Santa Fe Plaza means long lines are fairly common at The Shed.  Savvy diners who don’t want to wait will drive about a mile and a half to The Shed’s sister restaurant La Choza, another Santa Fe treasure.
The Shed
113 1/2 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, NM
982-9030
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Blue Corn Enchiladas, Blue Corn Tacos, Carne Adovada, Green Chile Stew, Lemon Soufflé, Mocha Cake

Tomasita’s – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Tomasita's in Santa Fe

Tomasita

The decade following America’s Civil War was one of burgeoning expansion westward with railroads leading the way.  Railroads helped open up the Wild West which included the then territory of New Mexico.  They transported wool, hides, piñon, lumber, coal, chile and other agricultural products.  They served as “connectors” between villages, towns and pueblos.  They bridged cultures and transcended distance, traversing through rocky promontories, barren mesas and fecund river valleys.  Railroads spread the news, enlightened the culture and introduced modern amenities to outposts separated by miles and time.

The long defunct Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGWR) even had grandiose plans to connect Denver, Colorado and Mexico City  with its narrow-gauge railroad.   During its halcyon days, the 125-mile, seven-hour branch from Antonito, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico earned the sobriquet “The Chile Line” in recognition that much of the freight it hauled was chile peppers .

The railroad reached Santa Fe in 1881, but never went further south.  By the 1930s, the decline in the demand for lumber and competition from buses and trucks reduced traffic on the line greatly and on September 1st, 1941, the Chile Line departed Santa Fe’s Guadalupe Station on its final northbound run.

The interior at Tomasita's

The sun-bathed interior at Tomasita's

The southern terminus of the Chile Line was a red brick station house constructed in 1904.  Today that station house is the home of Tomasita’s, one of the most popular New Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe.  Tomasita’s prides itself on authenticity, preparing its cuisine using recipes handed down for generations.  Those recipes have borne witness over generations to the melding of cultures once dependent on the agrarian products of the area–chile, beans, corn and more–all transported on the Chile Line.

Tomasita’s serves over 80,000 pounds of chile every year, every ounce of that having been grown in New Mexico.  Both red and green chile are beloved by locals and critics alike.  It’s a chile for which warnings are posted for out-of-town guests in bold red proclamation: “The chile is hot!”  Please ask your waitperson for a sample or order it on the side.  We are not responsible for too hot chile!

It’s also a chile recently heralded on the air and in print by The Food Network and Bon Appetit magazine respectively.  During a 2008 visit to Santa Fe for a taping of Rachael Ray’s Tasty Treats, the megawatt Food Network personality proclaimed Tomasita’s a local favorite for its chile (more on the local favorite theme later).  The Food Network also gave Tomasita’s plenty of love in an episode of “Heat Seekers” which first aired in August, 2011.  Hosts Aaron and Roger Mooking tested their masochistic mettle by sampling some of the city’s most piquant plates.  Tomasita’s was their first stop.  Though the carne adovada didn’t exactly water their eyes with its incendiary qualities, the hosts certainly enjoyed it.

A warning to non-chileheads

A warning to non-chileheads

In its January, 2009 print edition Bon Appetit magazine named Tomasita’s one of America’s “best chili spots.”   Alas, it was the exclusive “chile” named in the company of purveyors of “chili”  in such hot beds of pepper piquancy as Seattle, Washington; Washington, D.C., Cincinatti, Ohio;  Springfield, Illinois and New York City (which reminded me of a Pace Picante sauce commercial in which a city rube was strung up for bringing New York City salsa to a campfire).  The passing of time didn’t quell Bon Appetit’s ardor for Tomasita’s chili (sic) which published the same article in 2009–only this time on its Web site.

Bon Appetit declared, “This is one of the best places to try stew-like New Mexican green chili (named after its green Hatch chiles), filled with your choice of pinto beans, posole, beef, chicken, or cheese. A crispy sopaipilla (puffy fry bread) comes on the side.”   It made me wonder if anyone on the magazine staff had ever actually tried Tomasita’s green chile.

Savvy New Mexicans don’t need a national publication to tell them about New Mexico green chile though if we do want validation of our opinions, we trust local publications such as the Santa Fe Reporter and Santa Fean magazine to tell us, to no one’s surprise, that Tomasita’s chile is a perennial “best of” award winner in their respective annual polls.

Guacamole and blue corn tortilla chips

Guacamole and blue corn tortilla chips

The greatness of Tomasita’s chile is validated by the hordes of patrons lining up half an hour before the restaurant opens up to get seated.  Most of them don’t mind waiting for a table.  The waiting area is spacious and you’ll invariably run into other prospective guests debating the official New Mexico state question “red or green” and its manifestation in the entrees at Tomasita’s.

The crowds range from locals who visit Tomasita’s two or three times a week to eager tourists, some of whom were introduced to the restaurant by Rachael Ray and others who pilgrimage to Santa Fe as often as they can.  My friend Joey Martinez , a Santa Fe native, owns a BMW in part because it gets him from Albuquerque to Tomasita’s quickly.

There are some vestiges of the century-old red station house still visible, but you have to look for them.  It is a brightly illuminated restaurant with chandelier lighting suspended from a high ceiling buttressed by massive beams.  Hanging plants are suspended from those beams while red chile ristras hang on the vintage red brick walls.  Though Tomasita’s has been visited by a veritable compendium of glitterati–Linda Ronstadt, Arnold Schwartzennegar, Hillary Clinton, Don Imus, Shirley McLaine and others–there are no  framed autographed photographs of any of them on the walls.

Ground beef enchilada with a fried egg on top

Ground beef enchilada with a fried egg on top

Despite its reputation as a nonpareil purveyor of chile, the menu has some interesting departures from New Mexican cuisine.  Appetizers include stuffed grape leaves (the owner is the daughter of Greek immigrants), deep-fried chicken wings, mushroom caps and shrimp cocktail while the entrees include something called the Randy Travis plate–two grilled pork chops with posole and refried beans with green chile and cheese.  Travis, a country music superstar and long-time Santa Fe resident, also has a dining room named for him at the restaurant he apparently considers a favorite.

Unfortunately, the salsa is one of two menu items (the other is carne adovada) desecrated with that accursed demon spice cumin.  Interestingly one spice you won’t see on the entrees is cilantro.  The emphasis is regional with an emphasis on red and green.  That’s the way it’s been since Georgia Maryol founded Tomasita’s nearly four decades ago, albeit in a Hickox Street location that today houses the Tune-Up Cafe.  She purchased the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad building and moved in to the restaurant’s current location in 1978.

Lack of salsa not withstanding, there are plenty of delicious preprandial options including guacamole and blue corn tortilla chips.  The guacamole, served in a crisp corn tortilla fashioned like a bowl, is unctuous and thick, a complement to the formidable low-salt chips.  The guacamole is ameliorated with onions, tomatoes, garlic and salt.  Unlike at some restaurants, sheaves of shredded lettuce aren’t hidden under the guacamole to give you the impression you’re getting more than you actually are.

Carnitas Antonio

Carnitas Antonio

Enchiladas are always a good benchmark for New Mexican food in general and chile specifically.  Tomasita’s enchiladas are served Northern New Mexican style–flat with Monterrey Jack cheese, pinto beans and your choice of red, green or vegetarian red or green chile (although savvy diners will opt for both red and green).   You also have the option of cheese, ground beef, chicken or shrimp enchiladas with or without a Taos fresh egg.

The ground beef is seasoned wonderfully and layered generously atop a corn tortilla.  The red chile is intensely flavored without being overly piquant, complex without confusing your taste buds with spices and additives that shouldn’t be there.  The green chile is the essence of freshness.  It is roasted to perfection and has a fruity redolence with a tongue-tingling piquancy New Mexicans love.   It’s no wonder this chile is beloved!

The piquancy of that chile is undoubtedly one of the reasons margaritas are so popular at Tomasita’s which serves 20 to 40 gallons of the tequila based cocktail per day depending on whether served on a weekday or weekend.   The margaritas are reputed to have a siesta-inducing potency.

Sopaipillas with honey butter

Sopaipillas with honey butter

Daily specials include carne adovada on Fridays.  On Saturday it’s Carnitas Antonio, tender strips of beef marinated with onions and green chile cooked in a special sauce and served with Spanish rice and refried beans.  This has the look and taste of New Mexican comfort food, albeit covered in brown sauce instead of red or green (some might consider that sacrilege).  The beef is as tender as Mother Theresa’s heart, not at all leathery like some fajita meat tends to be.  The sauce is rich and delicious.

All entrees and specials include a sopaipilla served with honey butter and New Mexico honey.  The sopaipillas invite you to slather them with that savory-sweet butter then pile on more sweet decadence with pure honey.  The sopaipilla is fluffy and cloud-like.  Open it up and steam wafts upward to your waiting nostrils.  These are some of the very best sopaipillas in New Mexico.

Normally sopaipillas with honey are all New Mexicans need for dessert, but when piñon cheesecake is available not even a paragon of saintly patience like San Pasqual can resist.  Everything–from the Graham cracker crust to the rich, thick caramel–on this cheesecake is made in-house.  This is a dense cheesecake, a far a departure from those waxy facsimiles some restaurants serve.  The piñon is intense–sweet with a subtle hint of pine that will transport your mind and taste buds to New Mexico’s pine forests.

piñon cheesecake with caramel

There are many reasons Tomasita’s is a favorite of locals and visitors alike and they’re not all related to the superb quality of red and green chile laden entrees.  Service is absolutely impeccable, portions are reasonable and prices are fair.   When you serve in excess of a quarter million meals a year as Tomasita’s does and greatness permeates your operating model, the term local institution is bandied about.  Tomasita’s is a local institution!

NOTE:  Tomasita’s is within easy walking distance of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market,  New Mexico’s largest farmers’ market and one of the most widely recognized markets in the United States and beyond.  If you haven’t watched Rick Sebak’s wonderful documentary “To Market to Market to Buy a Fat Pig” you’re missing out on a  fabulous celebration of market houses, market places and farmers’ markets across the United States.  The first farmers’ market featured is Santa Fe’s own.

Tomasita’s Restaurant
500 South Guadalupe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 983-5721
LATEST VISIT: 28 February 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Carnitas Antonio, Guacamole and Chips, Piñon Cheesecake

Tomasita's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Aqua Santa – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Aqua Santa, one of Santa Fe’s very best restaurants of any genre

But the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty, so different from the equally pure, equally pristine and lovely morning of Australia, which is so soft, so utterly pure in its softness, and betrayed by green parrot flying. But in the lovely morning of Australia one went into a dream. In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.”

In a 1928 essay called “New Mexico,” prolific writer D.H. Lawrence wrote that “New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had.”  Lawrence believed New Mexico liberated him from the present era of civilization.  In a sense, the Land of Enchantment healed his spirit.

There is so much about New Mexico that is salubrious to the health of mind. body and spirit.  What spirit wouldn’t be buoyed by our cobalt skies with their endless depth of  graduating color intensity as they are frequented by fluffy white clouds, the type from which fairy tale castles are built?

A very busy open kitchen at Aqua Santa

Not only are New Mexico’s skies and clean, fresh air blessed with healing qualities, Mother Earth issues from her core, a seemingly endless supply of steamy, bubbling hot mineral water known for centuries to contain medicinal properties.  Both the indigenous Native Americans and Spanish Conquistadors considered those mineral springs sacred ground,  This “agua santa” or holy water was thought by some to be the source of the fabled and elusive Fountain of Youth.

I suspect New Mexico’s soothing waters may have been the inspiration for chef Brian Knox naming his restaurant Aqua Santa.  Certainly his menu pays tribute to the spirit of those qualities which make New Mexico a healthful haven and respite for the ill of health and the weary.

Knox is a proponent of farm-to-table meals, frequenting the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market for the freshest in seasonal organic produce.  Frequent guests have come to realize that the menu at Aqua Santa changes frequently, major portions of it, in fact, changing daily.  Knox literally reinvents his menu to correspond with the best and freshest ingredients available that day at the farmer’s market and what is otherwise organic and seasonal.  His propensity for changing the menu daily was recognized in an October, 2007 article  on Gourmet magazine highlighting America’s best farm-to-table restaurants.

Considered one of Santa Fe’s most staunch advocates of the “slow food” movement, Knox actively promotes the preservation and use of local and traditional food products.  His slow food practices are the antithesis of fast food in that they are healthful and flavorful.

The staff of life at Aqua Santa

During the 2008 filming of Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels show, Knox explained, “when you eat here, we want you to experience a flavor explosion and something different than you’ve either eaten at home or at another restaurant in any part of the world.  What we want is a really fresh, clean, simple presentation and taste.”  By most standards, he succeeds, meeting his self-imposed challenge with a refined, inventive and sophisticated menu featuring distinctive ingredients at the height of freshness.

Knox launched Aqua Santa in 2004, nearly eight years after closing Escalera, one of the most popular restaurants in Santa Fe.  A homey, dimly-lit one-room restaurant in which the exhibition kitchen seems spotlighted like the focal point it is, Aqua Santa invites comparisons to  rural European restaurants.  An oval antique table in front of the exhibition kitchen is set with a basket brimming with large loaves of artisanal country bread, a crystal vase of flowers and several bottles of wine.  Aqua Santa is reputed to have one of the most sophisticated wine lists in Santa Fe.

The wait staff is courteous and attentive, reflecting the geniality of Chef Knox who flits from table to table greeting guests and ensuring their comfort.  He is the consummate host and his wait staff his disciples of dining decorum.

Baby artichokes topped with Burrata, a fabulous cheese

Even the “non-adult” beverage selection at Aqua Santa shows refinement.  Hot and cold teas are sweetened with your choice of natural sugar or honey, no artificial sweetener here.  Nor will you find Coke or Pepsi products offered.  If you want a carbonated beverage, it’s either San Pellegrino Limonada or Orangina, both of which are quite good.

As you peruse the menu in awe-struck amazement at the seemingly preternatural melding of ingredients, a half-loaf of sliced bread and pads of butter are brought to your table.  We were lucky enough to have been served an unsalted white bread as delicious as any bread we’ve had.  A hard-crusted exterior belies a pillowy soft interior on which butter spreads easily.

As often as he can get it shipped fresh, chef Knox includes an appetizer featuring burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella.  Its outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream, rendering it unnaturally soft. My friend and fellow gourmand Sandy Driscoll  (the very best dog trainer in Los Angeles, by the way) introduced me to burrata last year and absolutely loves it.  She’s fortunate enough to live very close to where this cheese is made and incorporates it in many of her own recipes.

pan-fried black pepper oysters

For the rest of us fromage fanatics, Aqua Santa is one of a select few restaurants in New Mexico to offer burrata.  Chef Knox displays his passion for ingredients and his inventiveness by offering burrata in combination with the fresh vegetables of the day, be they porcini mushrooms, mustard greens or crisp baby artichokes.  Baby artichoke is somewhat of a misnomer because these are fully mature versions of the traditional artichoke, only smaller than most of us are used to.

The baby artichokes are roasted to a delicious crispiness then blanketed with a large “dollop” of burrata.  The combination is an adventure in textural appreciation–from the coarse yet delicate artichokes to the unique textures (exterior and interior) of the creamy burrata.  This is a fabulous appetizer you have to experience to truly appreciate.

Another fabulous appetizer are the pan-fried black pepper oysters with aioli and watercress.  The oysters have just a whisper of breading, just enough to hold in all the plump oyster meat, allowing the slightly briny, slightly sweet flavors to shine.

Shepherd’s Lamb

From among the entrees, there are several “must have” options, but since most us of have neither an unlimited budget or appetite, one I recommend highly is the Shepherd’s Lamb, a certified grass-fed organic lamb, which is braised ’round the clock’ with fennel and rapini greens. Chef Knox may not be able to tell you who the lamb’s parents were, but he can certainly tell you where it was raised and its diet.  He certainly will share his appreciation for the heritage breed.

My experience with entrees made with fennel is that it’s either not discernible in the least or the flavor absolutely dominates the entree, in some cases imparting an almost licorice strong flavor.  Under Chef Knox’s skillful hands, the fennel is a terrific contributor and complement to several other flavor combinations.  The hint of fennel melds wonderfully with the delicate simplicity of the lamb which lacks all of the characteristic gaminess for which the species is sometimes known.

The other indication this is no ordinary dish is the sheer tenderness of the lamb.  I’m talking fork-tender, falling apart meat partially submerged in a flavorful ragu.  The rapini greens have a slightly pungent, maybe even a bit of an acidic taste, but they are very complementary in combination with the other ingredients.

Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail

Another fabulous entree is Aqua Santa’s Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail with arugala crostini and an onion raisin sauce.  We were amazed at just how much garlic sausage can be stuffed into the cavity of a quail, not an especially sizeable bird.  As with many of Chef Knox’s inventive creations, there is a lot going on with this entree in terms of flavor discernment.  The sausage has just enough garlic to let you know it’s there.  The onion raisin sauce offers just enough sweetness to provide a flavor contrast in the most complementary manner.

A testament to the chef’s propensity for risk-taking was demonstrated in the amuse bouche with which we were presented even before ordering.  An amuse bouche is a bite-size morsel traditionally served before the first course of a meal.  It is not something you order.  Consider it a “gift from the chef.”  Anyway, our amuse bouche was two  grilled quail legs covered with a tangy tamarind sauce.  Rather than dissuade us from ordering something else featuring quail, it may have inspired us to have more.

Panna cotta

 

Desserts, all created in-house, are equal to the entrees.  The buttermilk panna cota with bittersweet chocolate sauce and raspberries came highly recommended by our waitress.  Panna cotta is not unlike flan in that both are light, silky egg custards often flavored with caramel.   Aqua Santa just does it better thanks to the infusion of rich buttermilk and the complementary sweet, tangy and bittersweet flavors of chocolate and raspberries.

Angel food cake

Perhaps even better is an angel food cake with a raspberry and strawberry compote and housemade whipped cream with edible flowers.  The angel food cake is moist, soft and creamy with just a bit of characteristic sponginess.  It’s the best angel food cake I’ve ever had, a dessert that earns its name.

Aqua Santa is everything superlative said about it and so much more.  It is one of the best restaurants in Santa Fe, a unique gem under the helm of an equally unique chef and owner.  Put it near or at the top of your “must visit” list.

AQUA SANTA
451 W Alameda St
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 25
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Black Pepper Oysters, Baby Artichokes and Burrata, Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail, Shepherd’s Lamb, Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Angel Food Cake

Guadalupe Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Guadalupe Cafe on Old Santa Fe Trail

1974, Mexico’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.” Though perhaps not to the same degree of reverence as people of Mexican descent have for Our Lady of Guadalupe, many diners literally make pilgrimages to Santa Fe’s Guadalupe Cafe. You might say they trek to this beloved institution with a type of fervor which could be considered almost spiritual.

The Guadalupe Cafe, long removed from Santa Fe’s Guadalupe District and Guadalupe Street, does indeed inspire a fierce devotion. It is one of the most popular restaurants in Santa Fe, a venue often included in discussions about the best New Mexican restaurants in Northern New Mexico. It’s not uncommon to find yourself seated next to families who drove from Albuquerque or Taos (as has been our experience) just for breakfast at this institution. It’s not uncommon for tourists to make this the first restaurant they visit when they return to Santa Fe (and the City Different always inspires return visits).

During a return visit to Santa Fe for her Tasty Travels show, the effervescent kitchen diva Rachael Ray touted the Guadalupe Cafe as “no more affordable way to wake up your taste buds Santa Fe style.” A New York Times travel writer who’s obviously spent quite a bit of time in Santa Fe writes, “when I want New Mexican food, I go to this restaurant, and like many Santa Feans, I go there often.” Gayot.com, the self-styled “guide to the good life” proclaims the Guadalupe Cafe “one of Santa Fe’s most beloved restaurants.”

Within easy walking distance of the “Roundhouse,” the New Mexico state capital building, the Guadalupe Cafe is frequented by the state’s power brokers (especially when the legislature is in session), some of whom might be seen rubbing elbows with part-time Santa Fe residents who ply their thespianic trades in Hollywood.

One of the Guadalupe Cafe's dining rooms

It’s well established that the Guadalupe Cafe is loved by both locals, politicians, tourists, stars and food writers, but what makes it so special? Without a doubt, it’s a time-tested and proven formula that hasn’t changed in more than three decades. When Isabelle Koomoa launched her iconic restaurant, her dream was a “from scratch” restaurant in which everything humanly possible is made from scratch on the premises. She’s been faithful to that recipe for success and it’s paid off. It’s probably just as important that the recipes used in the kitchen are inspired (gourmet New Mexican at its finest) and that service is attentive and friendly.

The term I’ve most often heard or read to describe the Guadalupe Cafe is “casually elegant.” That fits. Housed in a light adobe hued stucco edifice, the restaurant imparts a sense of hominess as it bids guests welcome with its warm colors and heavily trodden oaken floors. There are several dining rooms whose walls are festooned by Southwestern art, including portraits of John Wayne and other Western glitterati. Nichos include folk art such as ceramic pigs (no lipstick) or Catholic iconography such as San Pascual, the patron saint of kitchens.

The preferred venue for dining, weather permitting, is the outdoor patio from which guests can check out passers-by on Old Santa Fe Trail. In most cases the guests themselves–an eclectic mix of starched-shirt white-collar employees; tatooed, under-dressed Bohemians and nattily attired tourists–make for pretty interesting people watching, too. When wind or cold call for a surcease in outdoor dining, it’s nice to know you can retreat indoors where kiva fireplaces await.

Hot chocolate the way it should be made

The menu is expansive and awash with creative departures from traditional New Mexican recipes. You might say New Mexican entrees are extended beyond the ordinary into the inventive realm. Even traditionalists will quickly forgive those departures because the resultant entrees are just so good (and besides, they don’t involve the use of cumin).

Santa Fe is not only the state capital. It is undoubtedly the breakfast capital of New Mexico, if not the entire Southwest. The Guadalupe Cafe and its eye-opening menu is a great way to start the day. The coffee is salubrious with its steamy fragrance and soul-warming heat, but my preference is for the restaurant’s unique hot chocolate. It’s served in a beverage glass instead of in a mug and the glass is lined with chocolate syrup which melts into the frothy hot chocolate to further sweeten it. It’s an instant cure for cool morning blues.

Casey Enchiladas

Generating even more heat is the chile which has a well-deserved reputation as among the very best in town. It’s a wonderful chile–pleasantly piquant, deeply earthy and perfectly seasoned. Some critics warn that the chile can be hot and the chef won’t put it on the side for you, but it’s a chile most locals should be able to handle easily.

One of the best ways in which to experience that chile is with a breakfast burrito (if it’s not the official state breakfast food, it should be) and the Guadalupe Cafe’s is one of the best in town, but other chile laden items make it worth passing up that great breakfast burrito. One such item are the Casey Enchiladas, two rolled blue corn tortillas with scrambled eggs, sausage and cheese served Christms style (with both red and green chile). This entree is served with home-cut potatoes and your choice of toast (sourdough or cinammon bread) or muffin.

The red chile definitely packs a punch. It is a deep red chile and it’s thick and flavorful. The green chile is more subtle, a neon green colored sauce with plenty of flavor. and fragrance. Both red and green chiles are absolutely delicious, perhaps the inspiration for the state legislature to declare an official state question (red or green?). The home-cut potatoes are sliced thin and seasoned to perfection.

Visitors concerned that chile might scald their tongues or cause gastrointestinal distress can still find an array of delicious offerings on the menu. One popular breakfast entree is the Santa Fe breakfast crepe made with a whole wheat batter and grilled tortilla slathered with low-fat yogurt and topped with fresh fruit and homemade granola. It is very popular among health-conscious diners.

Better still, so they can tell friends and colleagues back home that they partook of an exotic New Mexican treat, visitors should try the blue corn pinon nut bread French toast. The bread is sliced thick and cut in half diagonally. A full-order includes two slices while a half-order is a single slice, but is still big enough to share. Like New Mexico’s famous blue corn atole pinon pancakes, it’s uniquely ours.

Blue Corn Pinon Nut Bread French Toast

If the only sweet thing with which you want to start the day is a good morning kiss but you don’t want overpowering chile, one option are Guadalupe Cafe’s migas. Migas are a traditional Tex-Mex breakfast dish originally crafted as a meatless dish for Lent. The Guadalupe Cafe’s rendition consists of scrambled eggs with torn ribbons of trisp tortilla chips, scallions, cheese and chile throughout. Although the menu indicates the migas include chile, it was barely discernible. Perhaps the chile is in the salsa (which is pretty darn good, by the way). This version of migas would please the most persnickety of Texans.

Migas

I mentioned earlier that many breakfast items come with your choice of toast or muffin. The toast is fabulous. It’s thickly sliced and pillowy soft, toasted ever so slightly and served with melted butter and something that looks like ketchup, but which has the fruity deliciousness of strawberry without cloying additives that sweeten or thicken it artificially. Both the sourdough and cinammon breads make for excellent toast.

Toast with strawberry "jelly"

The Guadalupe Cafe
422 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM
(505) 982-9762
LATEST VISIT: 14 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Casey Enchiladas, Migas, Blue Corn Nut Bread French Toast, Hot Chocolate, Toast

Cloud Cliff Bakery & Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Cloud Cliff Bakery & Cafe, a culinary oasis in an industrial complex.

The Cloud Cliff Bakery

In the 1880s, Northern New Mexico was a prolific wheat growing region. More than 250 varieties of wheat grew in its rocky but fecund soil. Thanks to a rural revitalization program called the Northern New Mexico Organic Wheat Project, the region’s wheat production is becoming genetic diverse once again.

Today under the program’s auspices, more than 20 families are growing several heirloom wheat varieties which are marketed under the very popular Nativo label.

The driving force behind the program is Willem Maltem, a former Zen monk who arrived in Santa Fe in the mid 1980s. To earn bread, Maltem sold bread, in 1984 founding the Cloud Cliff Bakery, Cafe and Artspace. The artisan Bakery now produces 35,000 loaves of bread a month, but the staff of life is but one of the many things that makes Cloud Cliff truly unique and special.

Grace, beauty and harmony–hallmarks of Zen–are immediately obvious when you stride into the sprawling 8,000 square-foot complex whose distressed oak floor was recycled from a high school gymnasium. The walls are adorned by intricate paintings and weavings, the work of the Shipibo-Konibo people of the Peruvian Amazon. The patterns are said to have spiritual healing properties, and indeed there is a sense of tranquility and harmony about the complex. There’s no doubt the restaurant is committed to nourishing its customers’ souls as well as their appetites.

In Santa Fe, there may be no stronger sense of community than when breaking bread than at the Cloud Cliff. Tables seem overfilled with couples, friends and family; you just don’t see anyone dining alone. That sense of “oneness” seems to inspire gaiety and laughter as if the world’s ills disappear when you enter the restaurant. No one seems to mind the raucous laughter coming from one corner, the fussy baby at another or the entangled, groping couple who maybe should get a room at some motel.

On weekends the restaurant tends to be even more crowded as hungry dining patrons seem preternaturally drawn to the olfactory arousing fragrances emanating from the exhibition kitchen and the artisan bread products under glass as you walk in. The Cloud Cliff Bakery is truly nirvana for your nostrils and a feast for your eyes and stomach.

The menu’s reverence for local, fresh produce is obvious. Organic eggs (from Taos Farms), fruits and vegetables are used whenever possible. For a dollar more, you can even have real maple syrup on your hot cakes (delicious, fluffy orbs served with fresh, seasonal fruit) instead of Aunt Jemima. The hearty breakfasts include your choice of grilled home fries (absolutely wonderful) or organic red wehani rice, salsa, and a homemade hearth oven bread basket that showcases the bakery’s best.

The Sunday brunch menu features several Mexican or New Mexican entrees, including migas which you just don’t see in many restaurants outside of Texas. Originally a Lenten dish, migas are scrambled eggs tossed together with torn bits of tortilla, diced fresh tomatoes, diced onions, cheese, green chile and pico de gallo. Neither the green chile or the pico have any heat and that may detract from your enjoyment of an otherwise terrific entree.

Smoked chicken enchiladas start with free-range chicken cubed and blanketed under blue corn tortillas, spinach and cheese then smothered with red or green chile. The highlight of this particular entree is the wonderful smokiness of the chicken. Once again, the chile could be hotter.

You can’t leave the restaurant without picking up some of the bakery’s wheat-based bounty–a loaf of homemade ciabatta, a plump cinnamon roll, a croissant stuffed with goat cheese and green chile….the possibilities are deliciously limitless.

Cloud Cliff Bakery & Cafe
1805 2nd Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 August 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Migas, Smoked Chicken Enchiladas, Mexican Hot Cocoa, Pancakes