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La Boca – Santa Fe, New Mexico

La Boca in Santa Fe

La Boca in Santa Fe

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” George Costanza declared food and sex to be his two passions, reasoning that “it’s only natural to combine them.”  Jerry’s retort, “Natural?  Sex is about love between a man and a woman, not a man and a sandwich.”

George Costanza may actually have gotten it right!  The mouth is actually considered an erogenous zone, an area of the body with heightened sensitivity, the stimulation of which may result in a sexual response.

While most people don’t get sexually stimulated by eating, the mouth does host very sensitive taste receptors, including 10,000 taste buds on the tongue.  Perhaps that’s why so many people derive so much pleasure from the act of eating.

Gino brings a bocadillo to our table

Gino brings a bocadillo to our table

It may have been with this realization that chef and proprietor James Campbell Caruso named his restaurant venture “La Boca,” which translates from Spanish to “the mouth.”  La Boca launched in the summer of 2006.

Formerly executive chef at El Farol, Caruso is renown for melding Spanish and Mediterranean cuisines to create a unique cuisine that’s both traditional and contemporary.  It’s also extraordinary in its ability to tantalize the mouth with inimitable taste sensations.

La Boca specializes in tapas, the name for a wide variety of appetizers in Spanish cuisine.  Spaniards eat tapas as a cocktail between meals.  Dinner is usually served between 8PM and 10PM and lunch between 2AM and 3AM.  Having been raised in the Basque region (between the French and Spanish border), Caruso certainly understands the culture and significance of tapas.

Canelones with lump crab, scallop and Manchego cream

Canelones with lump crab, scallop and Manchego cream

Tapas restaurants have hit the United Kingdom and the United States by storm, but unlike in Spain, tapas may constitute a meal in and of themselves.  At Spanish restaurants, diners usually order many different small tapas, combining them for a full meal.

Since launching, La Boca has received extensive critical acclaim, including rave reviews from one of the most beautiful mouths in the world (with more teeth than an Osmond)–that of Giada Delaurentis, the pulchritudinous Food Network luminary.  Delaurentis visited Santa Fe in November, 2006 for the taping of her television series Giada’s Weekend Getaway.

Giada explained that though reservations are sometimes hard to come by, you can usually find a seat at the bar where the chef himself will craft a tapa to suit your taste.  A table can more easily be found during lunch hour on Saturday, especially if you’re there when the restaurant opens.

Cola: Caramelized Onions, Figs, Cabrales, Balsamic Reduction

Cola: Caramelized Onions, Figs, Cabrales (a Spanish cheese), Balsamic Reduction

A word of warning about the tables, however–they’re small…very small.  You’ll wonder how such tiny tables can accommodate the cavalcade of small plates destined your way.  Fortunately, the kitchen prepares each tapa to order and staggers their delivery so you aren’t too uncomfortably cramped in trying to make room.

Insofar as ambience, it might best be described as minimalist.  A sole framed painting of a restaurant called “La Boca Linda” hangs by the entrance.  That seems to constitute the restaurant’s non-edible art. The floors are red brick.  A black board over the bar lists the specials of the day.

During our inaugural visit, two tin buckets were suspended from the ceiling beams, but they weren’t there for esthetics; it turns out they’re functional.  The roof had a small leak exacerbated by the uncommonly wet winter.

Roasted Gemini Farms Beets with Spanish Goat Cheese

Roasted Gemini Farms Beets with Spanish Goat Cheese

Spanish and Mediterranean influences are apparent on the tapas menu which features twenty or so tapas.  It will be a challenge to narrow your choices to the six or so that constitute a hardy meal, but one that won’t leave you uncomfortably full.  In the next few paragraphs, I’ll attempt to describe the tapas of which we’ve partaken during our visits.  Please bear in mind that the menu changes frequently and some, perhaps many, of these tapas may not be available when you visit.

You might want to take Giada’s cue and order the grilled asparagus with black olive salsa and Regianno (a hard, granular parmesan cheese).  Lightly grilled, the asparagus are crisp to the bite, but tender and delicious.  The cheese and black olive salsa remove any trace of bitterness sometimes found in this folic acid and vitamin enriched vegetable.

Giada didn’t try the chorizo de la rioja simmered in sherry with golden raisins, but we did and boy, are we ever happy about that.  The chorizo is sliced diagonally and is seasoned with Spanish paprika which is said to give Spanish chorizo its characteristic flavor.  The sherry reduction and sweet golden raisins added a sweet taste to the smokiness of an excellent chorizo.

Bruscetta with Mushrooms, Fried Egg, Truffle Oil and Reggianito (an Argentinian cheese)

Bruscetta with Mushrooms, Fried Egg, Truffle Oil and Reggianito (an Argentinian cheese)

Perhaps even better than the chorizo is a pork fennel sausage with pomegranate and piment d’espelette (a long red pepper cultivated in the Basque region of France which imbues dishes with a mildly piquant, fruity finish).  Wow!   This tapa has it all–the tart sweetness of the pomegranate, the agreeably aromatic fragrance of fennel and the coarse savory deliciousness of the sausage.

In Spain, the fried egg is so beloved that almost every Spanish cookbook includes at least one recipe for fried eggs.  Lest you think frying an egg is so basic no recipe should be required, pick up a Spanish cookbook or two and you might be amazed at how the author rhapsodizes about el huevo frito and the many ways in which it can be prepared.

La Boca offers a farm-fresh fried egg atop a Reggianito (a very hard, granular, cows’ milk cheese from Argentina) and mushroom topped Bruschetta brushed with truffle oil.  It’s several orders of magnitude better than just about any fried egg you’ll ever have with a coalescence of flavors that might make you swoon.  The egg is prepared over-easy with just a hint of crispiness around the edges.  When the yoke breaks and golden deliciousness mingles with the other ingredients, you’ll luxuriate in an ovum that outstrips any ther.

Tapas Trio: Hummus and Eggplant Purees with Mint-Feta Spread and Flatbread

Tapas Trio: Hummus and Eggplant Purees with Mint-Feta Spread and Flatbread

Another tapa which blends complementary, yet on the surface, seemingly disparate ingredient combinations is the grilled artichokes with Spanish goat cheese, orange and mint.  To say the artichokes are grilled to perfection is an understatement.  They are both crispy and tender.  The goat cheese is full-flavored with a heady aroma and mildly sharp taste.  The orange and mint flavoring isn’t especially prominent which allows other tastes to come forward.

In the past few years, hummus and flatbread have become so common as to be considered almost passé.  Just about every restaurant seems to have their own rendition and few, if any, come close to the time-honored, traditional hummus you might find at a Middle Eastern restaurant such as Yasmine’s Cafe in Albuquerque.  Most restaurants tweak the ingredients to create their own interpretation of what should be a smooth, creamy taste of chickpea heaven.  Most are poor imitations.

La Boca’s version of hummus is one of three delicious spreads offered in the Tapas Trio.  The other two are an eggplant puree and a mint-feta spread.  They are served with a thin pita-like flatbread grilled and served warm.  The hummus has a mild garlic kick with a hint of lemon.  It’s quite good, but the most attention and taste bud grabbing of the three is the mint-feta spread in which two very strong tastes complement one another to form a refreshing, yet pungent and salty-briny combination.  The attentive wait staff will replenish the flatbread when you run out–and you will run out.

Tortilla Espanola: Red Pepper, Parmesan, Manzanilla Olives

Tortilla Espanola: Red Pepper, Parmesan, Manzanilla Olives

Perhaps the very best of the tapas is a sole canelone filled with lump crab and scallops and topped with a Manchego cream sauce then cooked and served in a clay dish.  A thin pasta is engorged with sea-sweetened lump crab and scallops.  There couldn’t be a better topping than the creamy, rich Manchego cheese sauce which finds its genesis in LaMancha, the land of Don Quixote.  According to Geno, our affable and knowledgeable waiter, this tapa is the restaurant’s most popular. Giada, who knows a thing or two about canelone, called La Boca’s phenomenal.  At her first bite, she exclaimed “this should be illegal, it’s so good.”

The Tortilla Española is the most commonly served dish in Spain with many variations often served as a light dinner in Spanish homes.  Despite the name, this “tortilla” is nothing like the flour or corn tortillas served in so many restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.  Instead, the Tortilla Española, as served in Spain and at La Boca, is a Spanish omelet that bears little resemblance to American omelets.  In fact, it may resemble a quiche more than an American omelet.  La Boca’s version is a fluffy omelet with red peppers, parmesan cheese and manzanilla olives.  It’s an excellent and thoroughly delicious representation of one of Spain’s national dish.

The only item we weren’t completely enamored with is a bocadillo (little sandwiches on grilled rustic bread) constructed of tuna salad with piquillo peppers and capers.  The panini-style bread dominated the tuna and left the other ingredients undiscernable.  Its saving grace is a salad of fresh, delicious house greens.  Other sandwiches are also available.

From the dinner menu: Grilled Hangar Steak with Smoked Sea Salt Caramel and Cabrales Butter

From the dinner menu: Grilled Hangar Steak with Smoked Sea Salt Caramel and Cabrales Butter

One of the true stars on the dinner menu is a grilled hangar steak sliced into seven pieces and served with your choice of two unique sauces–a smoked sea salt caramel sauce and a sauce made of Cabrales (a pungent and full-bodied artisan Spanish cheese) butter.  Ask for both sauces, both of which are wholly antithetical in flavor.  The smoked sea salt caramel sauce is caramel sweet punctuated by a discernible saltiness.  The Cabrales butter has a strong blue cheese flavor with the creaminess of butter.  Both are excellent foils for one another.  The hangar steak is fantastic at medium rare with plenty of pink to show for it.

Another adventure in flavor is the Moroccan spiced grilled shrimp served with an avocado mojo verde similar to guacamole, but with a bit of piquancy.  The shrimp have a snap when you bite into them, signifying not only freshness, but optimum preparation.  The Moroccan spices give the shrimp a zesty, rich and flavorful flavor.

Having grown up in Northern New Mexico meant an early realization as to where meat comes from.  It meant participating in matanzas, the slaughter of an animal, usually as part of a family celebration.  Matanzas can be a traumatizing event for a child, particularly if the intended guest of honor on the plate was treated as a pet.  I always gave thanks for and to the pigs, sheep and cattle which gave the ultimate unwilling sacrifice so we could eat.  Pangs of guilt still visit when I eat bacon, pork chops and especially morcillas.

Morcillas are blood sausages, made by bleeding a freshly slaughtered pig and collecting its warm blood  for  sausages.  You won’t find them at many restaurants or even family homes in New Mexico as family matanzas have largely been replaced by large supermarkets.  La Boca is one of a handful of restaurants in which the intensely flavored porcine treat  can be found.  Made with pork blood, garlic, chile and sundry ingredients, the morcillas are sliced diagonally into bite-sized pieces of eye-opening deliciousness.  Forget any preconceived notions you may have about blood sausage and try morcillas at La Boca.


Moroccan Spiced Grilled Shrimp with Avocado Mojo Verde

Moroccan Spiced Grilled Shrimp with Avocado Mojo Verde

Dessert tapas are on the roster at five dollars each or three for fourteen dollars.  The menu lists five desserts, but there are also daily specials.  You’ll have as hard a time selecting dessert as you’ll have picking main course tapas.  No matter what you select, you won’t be settling.

If you love strong semi-sweet, bitter chocolate, a good choice is the pot de crème, chocolate ganache infused with espresso beans.  The ganache has the consistency of soft frosting and the flavor of excellent dark chocolate.  You might not even taste the espresso beans though coffee aficionados might swear they make this dessert as wonderful as it is.

To broaden your dessert experience, try the Bocaditos Especiales, a specialty platter with PX (a liqueur from the Spanish region of Montilla) injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies.  These bite-sized treats are decadent and delicious, flavor explosions in every bite.  Close your eyes as you bite into the PX injected figs and let the flavor of pure, heavenly deliciousness wash over you.

Bocaditos Especiales (Specialty platter with PX injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies

Bocaditos Especiales (Specialty platter with PX injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies

La Boca’s version of “happy hour” is offered Monday through Friday from 3 to 5PM when “tapas de la tarde” are offered at reduced prices.

La Boca’s menu changes periodically to keep things fresh and interesting.  As such, some of the tapas described above may not be available when you visit.  No matter!  The genius of chef James Campbell Caruso is such that there will be new and wonderful things with which to fall in love.  Your mouth will absolutely love La Boca.

La Boca
72 West Marcy Street
Santa Fe, NM
982-3433
Web Site
1st VISIT: 10 February 2007
LATEST VISIT: 8 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 25
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Pot De Crème, Pork Fennel Sausage, Canelones, Grilled Asparagus, Grilled Artichokes, Chorizo de La Roja, Bocaditos Especiales, Grilled Hangar Steak, Tortilla Espanola, Tapas Trio, Roasted Gemini Beets, Cola

La Boca on Urbanspoon

Tesuque Village Market – Tesuque, New Mexico

The world famous Tesuque Village Market

The world famous Tesuque Village Market

The most successful Indian revolt in North American history occurred on August 10th, 1680. On that day, more than 8,000 warriors from the various Native American pueblos in New Mexico put aside deep historical differences and banded together to drive the Spaniards from their ancestral lands. This event is celebrated each year in Tesuque Pueblo.

Tesuque Pueblo played an integral role in the rebellion. Two Tesuque runners were dispatched by pueblo leaders to enlist support for the revolt. The runners carried knotted deer hide cords to the various pueblos, each knot signifying a day. On each successive day, one knot was untied. When the final knot was untied it signified the day of attack.

The annual celebration of this event includes a relay run reenacting the famous run. Runners depart from Tesuque plaza carrying a knotted cord made of yucca and an ear of corn. The yucca cord symbolizes the spirit of the people and the ear of corn their physical body. It is an inspiring event.

Always packed

Always packed

Led by Diego Jose de Vargas, the Spanish returned to New Mexico in 1692 and within a year regained full political control of New Mexico. Their return marked a significant change in Spanish policy toward the Pueblos. The Spanish became more civil toward the Pueblo peoples, allowing them to maintain sovereign rule over their own villages. More importantly, the Spanish did not force the Pueblos to accept Christianity.

The venerable Spanish village of Tesuque was founded in 1740 and is situated a few miles south of the current Pueblo and just north of Santa Fe, the heart of Spanish colonial occupation. Today, the village is a haven for the wealthy. A pantheon of Hollywood celebrities and famous artists now make Tesuque their home (or in many cases, their home away from home).

Ironically, Tesuque is a Tewa word which refers to the village’s river’s alternating from and disappearance into the sand. That word may also describe the behavior of many of the village’s celebrities. They appreciate the fact that Tesuque is a place to which they can escape and are not bothered by locals who respect their privacy.

Guacamole, salsa and chips

Guacamole, salsa and chips

For celebrity sighting there may be no better venue than the Tesuque Village Market in the center of the village. Established in 1969, this combination market, deli, bakery and restaurant has the sort of neighborhood feel many Santa Fe restaurants lack.

Moreover, it’s so laid back and unassuming that it’s not uncommon to see pristine Range Rovers and BMWs parked next to careworn pick-up trucks which are hosed down only when it’s time to remove salt residue after a snowfall. That speaks volumes to its broad appeal.

Like much of the village, the Tesuque Village Market is blanketed by a canopy of centuries old cottonwoods. The on and off again river for which the village is named is within easy walking distance.

World famous tortilla soup

World famous tortilla soup

After three decades under an ownership which some say had become indifferent, the Tesuque Village Market was purchased in 2006. Its new owners previously owned restaurants in Los Angeles and New York. With credentials like that come expectations of improved service with no degradation in the quality of the New Mexican food for which the restaurant has long been known.

The restaurant portion of the Market complex includes a relatively small dining room into which a surprising number of diners can be seated comfortably, albeit in close quarters.  It’s not uncommon to wait for a table to become available inside the restaurant which, in the summer, is fine because the porch accommodations include tables and chairs.

In the winter the porch is enclosed (you could call it that) in a thick plastic sheathing with a couple of small fireplaces working assiduously to cut through New Mexico’s sometimes bitter cold. Imbibing the seductive fragrance of wood smoke make this my preferred seating area.

Carnitas and papitas

Carnitas and papitas

In November, 2006, the pulchritudinous Food Network glitterati Giada Delaurentis had lunch at the Tesuque Village Market. As one can assume, her legion of fans visiting her restaurant stops make it a point to order exactly what she had during her weekend sojourn to the City Different.

Giada started off with the restaurant’s guacamole and chips–an excellent choice made even better with the addition of salsa. The guacamole is thick and buttery with a prominent infusion of lime. Fortunately the chips are formidable enough to scoop large amounts. The chips have a pronounced corn flavor and are low in salt. They are infinitely better than grocery store tortilla chips, many of which are direly in need of desalinization. The salsa is somewhat thin and only mildly piquant, but with a fresh cilantro influence.

Giada also had the tortilla soup, regarded by some as the best in the area (they obviously haven’t tried the tortilla soup at the Ó Eating House). The gastronomic goddess proclaimed the soup as “awesome,” calling it “a burst of Southwest flavor.”

Breakfast burrito served Christmas style

Breakfast burrito served Christmas style

This burst of Southwest flavor is made with roasted tomatoes, onions, Anaheim green chiles, red chile powder, jalapenos and cumin in a chicken broth. The finishing touch is a garnish of Cojita cheese, creme fraiche and tortilla chips.

Fresh corn tortilla chips are also blended with the soup. This gives it a thicker consistency than most soups. It is indeed a fine soup with a good smoky taste, but would be even better by subtracting the tablespoon of cumin called for on the recipe.

Hopefully I’ve now appeased the dining diva’s devotees and can proceed with the rest of my observations. The menu certainly offers a variety of options, all reasonably priced. Everything is made-to-order and portion size means you’ll have leftovers to take home.

Patty Melt with potato chips

Patty Melt with potato chips

On Sundays, the breakfast menu is available until noon, but an accommodating wait staff will fulfill your need for tortilla soup or chips and salsa even during breakfast hours if you so desire. The youthful wait staff is on-the-spot and friendly.

One breakfast entree for which you’ll be grateful you got up are the carnitas de puerco (pork carnitas). These cubes of porcine perfection are absolutely delicious–moist, tender and well-seasoned. Each morsel is an adventure in taste bud appeasement.  The carnitas are accompanied by two eggs and some of the very best papitas around. Similar to the carnitas, the papitas are cubed and golden brown. They have the taste and texture of oven-roasted potatoes, skin intact.

Forget what you’ve heard or read about blue corn pancakes, the quintessential New Mexican breakfast entree is the breakfast burrito. The Tesuque Village Market’s rendition is an excellent representation of why New Mexicans get up early in the morning.  The breakfast burrito is available with your choice of meat: chorizo, pork, beef or chicken and with red or green chile. Christmas style (red and green chile) is the preferred choice for many diners–for good reason (but not necessarily for this critic).

Sopressata with Gruyere on Sourdough

Sopressata with Gruyere on Sourdough

The Tesuque Village Market’s red chile has just enough of a hint of cumin to turn off (it doesn’t take much) my cumin disliking taste buds. It’s better red chile than at many New Mexican restaurants, but I’m fanatically anti-cumin in New Mexican food that just a little bit will do me.  Much, much better is the green chile which is an iridescent green and which has a piquant bite that will snap you out of any residual morning drowsiness you may have. It’s a fruity, earthy green chile laden with capsaicin blessed goodness.  The breakfast burrito is topped with shredded Cheddar and white cheeses and is engorged with potatoes and your choice of meat. It is served with the Market’s terrific papitas and a garnish of tomatoes and lettuce.

Lunch and dinner options are also varied. Lunch options include hot and cold sandwiches made with your choice of bread (not that anyone would choose anything other than Sage Bakehouse bread). Burgers and New Mexican entrees are also available.  A menu above a spacious and well-provisioned deli case lists several sandwich options, but there’s also a “build your own” option which will appeal to adventurous diners who understand deli meats and cheeses.

Those include wine-infused sopressata, a coarsely ground, salty Italian dry-cured salami I’ve been hooked on for years.  Fromage fanatics will also appreciate the cave-aged Gruyere cheese, a sweet, earthy and creamy cheese which is as addictive as any French cheese.  Sandwich them together between two glorious slices of Sage Bakehouse toasted sourdough bread, add a bit of lettuce and tomato and you’ve got a terrific sandwich.  Another winner is the market’s green chile infused patty melt with caramelized red onions.  The green chile has a kick to it and the light rye bread is perfectly toasted and delicious.

Chocolate Eclair

Chocolate Eclair

Pedestrian desserts at otherwise excellent restaurants may have the effect of making a great meal anti-climatic. That is, a boring dessert may render a stellar meal far less.  That’s certainly not the case at the Tesuque Village Market where dessert is a stand-out. An oversized under glass display case showcases a wide array of tempting desserts, all of which will beckon even the most sated diner.

Desserts include various pastries: pies, cakes, mousse, tarts and even flan. Many are big enough to share (not that you’d want to) and are deliciously decadent. An enormous chocolate éclair filled with rich, satisfying vanilla custard and topped with a luscious dark chocolate sprinkled with nuts is one such dessert. I’m surprised the dessert case isn’t laden with tongue-tracks.

The Tesuque Village Market is sometimes an overlooked dining option just outside of Santa Fe (maybe some of that has changed since Giada’s visit), but it’s worth a visit or ten.

Tesuque Village Market
Route 22 & Bishops Lodge Road
Tesuque, NM
988-8848

LATEST VISIT: 28 February 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tortilla Soup, Salsa and Chips, Guacamole, Breakfast Burrito, Éclair, Carnitas

Tesuque Village Market on Urbanspoon

Chocolate Maven Bakery & Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Chocolate Maven

The award-winning Chocolate Maven in Santa Fe, New Mexico

In the polytheistic world of the Mesoamerican cultures (which include the Aztecs and Mayans), Quetzalcoatl was revered as the creator deity and patron of priests, merchants and rulers.

Known as the “feathered serpent,” Quetzalcoatl was also associated with the cocoa bean and with chocolate. Great temples were erected in his honor and chocolate was offered to him. Montezuma, the 16th century Aztec ruler revered him.

In Montezuma’s great city of Tenochtitlan (which the Spaniards later renamed Mexico City), chocolate was considered a luxury drink reserved exclusively for gods and the ruler class. It is believed that Montezuma’s daily constitution included 50 goblets of a finely ground, foamy red dyed chocolate flavored with chili peppers, vanilla, wild bee honey and aromatic flowers.

Today, chocolate is no longer considered exclusive to a privileged class and the celebrity-worshipping modern world no longer holds Quetzalcoatl, the “god of chocolate” in reverence. No longer are temples built in his honor or sacrifices of chocolate made in his name.

Modern temples celebrating chocolate are ubiquitous in the modern world. One of New Mexico’s most renown and revered chocolate temples is the Chocolate Maven Bakery & Cafe, situated in an edifice which, from the exterior, more closely resembles a warehouse than a bakery and cafe.

In November, 2006, a modern-day goddess visited this revered chocolate temple and paid it homage for a larger audience than ever worshippedThe pulchritudinous Giada Delaurentis Quetzalcoatl.

Giada Delaurentis, the pulchritudinous Food Network star of the television series Giada’s Weekend Getaway made the Chocolate Maven one her several stops during a late autumn visit to the City Different.

While we braved the frosty air standing in line waiting for the restaurant to open for Sunday brunch, it was amusing (but not at all surprising) to listen to several in the queue practically gush with anticipation over dining at a restaurant once visited by the celebrated Ms. Delaurentis. One particularly awe-struck woman credited Giada with “teaching me how to cook.” Others, including some Santa Fe residents, had never heard of the Chocolate Maven until having watched Giada’s Weekend Getaway on the Food Network.

That surprised me because the Santa Fe Reporter, a very well written alternative newsweekly has named the Chocolate Maven one of Santa Fe’s top 40 restaurants every year since 2002. It also saddened me a bit because those people have been deprived the sheer pleasure of perusing the weekly musings of Gwyneth Doland, whose goddess-like talents in writing about food I have long admired.

The Chocolate Maven, by the way, was on my ever-expanding “must try” list for years, long before Giada Delaurentis made it a “happening place” for devotees of her show.

Unlike Giada, we were unable to finagle a table by the windows which provide a view of the bakery where all the creativity really takes place. Giada remarked that the bakers “look like they can do this in their sleep,” “this” meaning turning out “award winning homemade pastries and succulent desserts.”

A table by the window showcasing the bakery is a must

A table by the window showcasing the bakery is a must

Our table was on the second floor in one of the restaurant’s three dining areas. To get there, we had to ascend one of two of Santa Fe’s miraculous circular, winding staircases (the other being in the Loretto Chapel). The miracle here is how the restaurant, in Giada’s words, “smells like home.” The fragrant bouquet of baking breads and pastries permeates every square inch of this distinct bakery and cafe (by the way, the Chocolate Maven started off as a bakery then in time added a cafe which explains why it is situated in the warehouse district).

The beautiful pastry case

The beautiful pastry case

While the restaurant’s name might conjure up images of decadent chocolate, you can also indulge in fabulous breakfast, brunch and lunch fare. No matter what your pleasures be, a great way to start is with a glass of Aztec hot chocolate laced with red chile. In the 15th century, Montezuma drank goblets of chocolate before visiting his concubines as it was believed to have stamina enhancing properties.

The hot chocolate didn’t make me feel particularly vigorous, but this smooth semi-sweet treat certainly provided an endorphin “feel good” rush, especially when the red chile warmed the back of my throat.

Another warming sensation is provided by the Chocolate Maven’s Chilaquiles, layers of yellow and blue corn tortillas sautéed in a red chile and tomato sauce then topped with two eggs any style. Chilaquiles is considered the quintessential Mexican breakfast dish and in New Mexico, we’ve had none better.

The Chilaquiles dish (pictured below) also includes skillet potatoes, but these are certainly not the “run-of-the-mill” boring skillet potatoes for which a template seems to exist at lesser restaurants. These are tender red potatoes fried to perfection and imbued with the savory sweetness of white onion and carrots.

The Chocolate Maven's breakfast burrito

The Chocolate Maven's breakfast burrito

No matter what you order for yourself, ask for a short-stack of pancakes to share with a dining companion. Griddled to a golden hue and sprinkled with just a tad of powdered sugar, these fluffy orbs are absolutely delicious.

The Chocolate Maven does commit one cardinal sin by serving these pancake treasures with hard butter in packets. We can live with unheated syrup, but when you can’t slather melting butter on steamy pancakes, it’s a definite downer. Next time we might sneak in our own melted butter.

Many of the Saturday and Sunday brunch entrees feature eggs as their base ingredient. Aficionados of the edible ovum might maximize their dining pleasure by ordering the eggs ménage à trois (Montezuma would have engaged) which includes one of each Eggs Florentine, Madison and Benedict, all reputed to be wonderful.

Light, fluffy eggs are certainly an integral part of the restaurant’s breakfast burrito, but it is the red chile that steals the show. While not especially piquant, the chile is seasoned with just a hint of Mexican oregano and tastes like chile which hasn’t had much shelf life. It’s got a wonderfully earthy taste that doesn’t come across in every red chile served in the Land of Enchantment.

Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles

A slight departure from New Mexico can be had with a breakfast order of migas, a traditional Tex-Mex breakfast dish originally crafted as a meatless dish for Lent. Migas consist of scrambled eggs with torn ribbons of tortilla chips, sliced chiles, diced tomatoes and cheese plus sour cream and salsa. The Maven’s version would please the most persnickety of Texans.

While the lunch portion of brunch is often short-changed in many restaurants, the menu at the Chocolate Maven includes several lunch-type entrees such as salads and sandwiches. Vegans will definitely not feel left out thanks to a generous number of meatless entrees.

If the Bistro Sandwich is any indication, the Chocolate Maven just might become one of my favorite sandwich restaurants. This sandwich starts with a grilled rustic Parisian white bread which is topped with melted Gruyere cheese, ham, apple slices and just a hint of grainy mustard. If you appreciate different taste sensations–the tartness of apple, smokiness of ham, creaminess of cheese and acidity of mustard–competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds, this is a sandwich for you!

The Bistro Sandwich

The Bistro Sandwich

Sandwiches are accompanied by your choice of fresh coleslaw, a baby greens salad or garlic rosemary French fries. These are not flaccid fries. They are crispy and seasoned to a flavorful conclusion. Ketchup is unnecessary with these sliced tubers.

On your contented way out, a stop at the bakery case is in order. It’s a wonder this bakery case isn’t covered in drool or tongue trails because the chocolate display under glass is replete with decadent temptation in the form of frosted cakes, unfrosted brownies of several varieties and formed chocolate.

The Belgian chocolate brownie has the rich taste of semi-sweet cocoa and includes walnuts. It is one of the bakery’s most popular offerings, but my preference is actually for the chocolate and orange truffle brownie which adds a zesty citrus taste that complements the cocoa wonderfully.

Yet another bakery case showcases fruity pastries that would make for an excellent breakfast treat. Shelves of cookies in white paper bags also beckon. The chocolate piñon cookies have a prominent cocoa taste and are so good, you may just polish off an entire bag in one sitting.

Montezuma would have loved the Chocolate Maven. So will every chocolate fanatic. It is truly a bakery and cafe worthy of the gods!

Chocolate Maven Bakery & Cafe
West San Mateo Road
Santa Fe, NM
984-1980

LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bistro Sandwich, Pancakes, Chilaquiles, Belgian Chocolate Brownie, Orange Truffle Brownie, Aztec Hot Chocolate, Migas

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