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Kakawa Chocolate House – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe

Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe

In a 1995 episode of Seinfeld, Kramer attempted to deduce George’s ATM code: “You’re a portly fellow, a bit long in the waistband.  So what’s your pleasure?  Is it the salty snacks you crave?  No, no, no, yours is a sweet tooth.  Oh you may stray, but you’ll always return to your dark master, the cocoa bean.”

America is, like George Costanza, a nation of chocolohics.  The Chocolate Manufacturers Association estimates that the per capita consumption of chocolate among Americans is about 11 pounds per person per year.  That translates to 27,000 calories, 1530 grams of fat, 1130 milligrams of cholesterol, 4400 milligrams of sodium, 3150 grams of carbohydrates and 350 grams of protein.  In 2001 Americans consumed 3 billion pounds of chocolate at a cost of some $13.1 billion.

More than half the consumption of chocolate occurs between meals and nearly a quarter of that (22 percent) takes place between 8PM and midnight.  More chocolate is consumed in winter than in any other season and increased consumption of chocolate is known to have a direct correlation to stressful events.  In the aftermath of 9-11, consumption of chocolate rose dramatically.

The World Atlas of Chocolate reports that milk chocolate is America’s favorite variety of chocolate.   Because it is made with a lower proportion of cocoa solids and contains milk, chocolate snobs like me dismiss milk chocolate as a sweet indulgence, the type of tooth-decaying chocolate we ate as children when we didn’t know better.  Our pedantic affections have been ensnared by ebony, bittersweet bars with adult levels of cacao, the darker and more bittersweet the better.  We like our chocolate the way we like our coffee–as black as night and as potent as hemlock.

Paradise under glass

Paradise under glass

As if we needed another reason to indulge in the addictively strong, cocoa-rich flavor of dark chocolate, recent research indicates eating a small 1.6-ounce dark chocolate bar is very good for you.  Attribute that to a metabolite called epicatechin, a flavonoid which keeps cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reduces the risk of blood clots and slows down immune responses that lead to clogged arteries.  German researchers have also found another health benefit derived from dark chocolate–the lowering of  blood pressure.  Alas, moderation is prescribed since even dark chocolate is calorie-laden.

The Olmec culture preceded the Mayans and Aztecs in  domesticating the cacao tree and unleashing the salubrious qualities and deliciousness of chocolate.  Though the  Meso-American cultures may not have known all the chemical reasons for the healthful benefits of chocolate, they did recognize they had something special.  Warriors consumed cacao wafers, believing the cacao gave them strength for battle.  Chocolate beverages were also believed to have stamina enhancing properties which came in handy when “entertaining” concubines.

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 up to 50 goblets of a finely ground, foamy red dyed chocolate flavored with chili peppers, vanilla, wild bee honey and aromatic flowers.

kakawa03

Very few people know or appreciate the origin of chocolate as much as the folks at Santa Fe’s extraordinary Kakawa (an ancient Olmec word for chocolate and the cacao tree) Chocolate House.  Kakawa is passionate about authentic and historic drinking chocolate elixirs spanning the time period 1000 B.C. to the mid 1900s A.D.  That passion translates to outstanding chocolate experiences for connoisseurs.

All of Kakawa’s chocolate creations are hand-made in small batches using the best cacao beans in the world, a process which can’t be rushed.  Utmost care is taken to ensure not only the finest quality and freshness, but historical authenticity.  Although there are no existing Meso-American chocolate recipes per se, Kakawa’s founder Mark Sciscenti (no longer with the shop) pored over archaeological evidence to discern ingredients and proportion.  That  attention to detail is a hallmark of every scintillating scintilla of chocolate.

Elixirs (drinking chocolates) are divided into two categories: Meso-American drinking chocolate and Historic European, Jeffersonian American and Oaxacan drinking chocolate.  The charming artisanal shop is redolent with their intoxicating aromas.

A truffle of Chaya, Mesquite, Prickly Pear Fruit Nectar and Oaxacan Chile Pasilla

A truffle of Chaya, Mesquite, Prickly Pear Fruit Nectar and Oaxacan Chile Pasilla

In the tradition of the Meso-American chocolate pioneers, most of Kakawa’s chocolate drinks are made with water.  A few contain restrained amounts of milk, rice milk or almond milk.  This allows the purity of cacao to shine through while preserving its healthful qualities in ways that are lost when milk is added.  Parsimonious amounts of traditional agave nectar or honey are used to impart a bittersweet quality to the chocolate.  There is some evidence that both honey and agave nectar were sparsely used by the Meso-American cultures because of their high value.  They were also considered to be flavoring agents and not sweeteners as we view them today.

From among the Pre-Columbian Meso-American/Mayan chocolate elixirs, one that will cure whatever ails you is the Acuyo made from the Mexican pepper leaf (sometimes called the root beer plant).  In its plant form, acuyo has a very pleasing fragrance somewhat reminiscent of anise, nutmet and black pepper.  Those qualities translate well in a cup of chocolate elixir sweetened with honey and spiced with a mild chili.

Chilis of several types and degrees of piquancy are used on several elixirs just as Montezuma’s personal chef may have crafted them in the 15th century.  Mild chili is also used on the blue corn atole, an elixir made from roasted corn flour sweetened with honey.  Growing up in northern New Mexico, every time I was sick I was subjected by my grandmothers to blue corn atole, a gruel-like substance I found repulsive.  Abuelitas still love their blue corn atole in northern New Mexico where it is often served like cream of wheat.   Over time I’ve also grown to appreciate its unique qualities.

Brownies extraordinaire

Brownies extraordinaire

In an episode of the Food Network’s “Heat Seekers,” hosts Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking tested their masochistic mettle by sampling some of the city’s most piquant plates.  Kakawa’s caramel and chocolate dipped arbol chilis watered their eyes and left them coughing and sputtering in delicious agony.

Practically contemporary in comparison to the millenniums-old style of indigenous Meso-American chocolate is an English chocolate elixir, circa 1680.  This rich, complex semi-sweet chocolate is made with milk, egg yolks, cinnamon, sherry and orange blossoms.  Like all chocolate drinks, it is served in three-ounce cups.  You’ll rue your next cup of Swiss Miss.

Kakawa’s amazing menu also features chocolate truffles, brownies, cookies, tortes, cakes and other desserts made with a unique blend of flavorful top quality chocolate ameliorated with the highest quality spices and natural flavor extracts in creative combinations to delight the body and soul–combinations such as a truffle crafted from chaya (known sometimes as tree spinach), mesquite and Oaxacan pasilla chili sweetened with prickly pear fruit nectar.  This is a truffle to savor slowly, a rare indulgence of chocolate heightened to its peak of flavor with disparate ingredients only a chocolate master would dare.

The Mexican brownie, made with cinnamon, pecans and chile with floral waters is decadent and delicious, a rich and moist brownie with pecans in every bite.  It is a perfect counterpoint to the chocolate decadence brownie, resplendent with chocolate chunks.  Neither is cloying like out-of-the-box brownie mixes tend to be and both are absolutely delicious.

If you’re besotted with the coco bean and in particular its dark children, there may be no better place in New Mexico for that love to be requited.

Kakawa Chocolate House
1050 Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-0388
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 February 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Chocolate Elixirs, Brownies, Truffles

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

Sweet Tomatoes – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sweet Tomatoes features the freshest salads around.

Sweet Tomatoes features the freshest salads around.

In the early 1980s, Albuquerque native and Tokyo Olympian Buster Quist (whose brother Terry I worked for at the time) launched within the Coronado mall, one of the Duke City’s very first salad bars.  The salad bar concept was a few years ahead of its time and the restaurant venture went belly up—a condition portly Americans have, not coincidentally, experienced en masse (no pun intended) over the years.

Salad has been a popular dietary staple for a long time, but only in recent years have creative cuisine crafters added imagination, flair and flavor to what used to be bland and unimaginative greenery.  The lack of imagination in crafting salads has always reminded dieters that the word “diet” is simply “die” without the letter “t.”  Today restaurants such as Sweet Tomatoes have added a creative flair that includes high calorie ingredients that can be diet devastating.

At Sweet Tomatoes, a burgeoning franchise, it will take self-discipline to steer clear of such diet destroying delicacies as the chocolate chip muffins, chocolate muffins, warm apple cobbler, Asiago focaccia and tomato focaccia bread, all of which are not only tempting, but pretty good.

A bounteous salad plate

A bounteous salad plate

Sweet Tomatoes lets you craft every salad combination conceivable with a bounteous array of options and dressings.  From among the daily offerings, the wonton salad is also first rate while the Tarragon tuna salad is a paragon of macaroni magnificence.  It is one of my very favorite macaroni salads anywhere.

Limited time taste treats which will hopefully be well enough received to make it to the daily menu include a Mandarin spinach tossed salad with a tangy citrus sauce and crunchy walnuts.  Another limited time favorite is the Dijon potato salad with garlic dill vinaigrette.  Even better is the limited time edition gorgonzola spinach salad which I improve upon by adding blue cheese crumbles.  A fourth limited time salad which captured our fancy is the “Strawberry Fields” (but not forever) salad with sliced strawberries, raisins and a vinaigrette dressing to embolden the entire experience.

Sweet Tomatoes Chili

Sweet Tomatoes Chili

Sweet Tomatoes serves soups to warm the cockles of your heart.  I must admit to indulging on the chili on occasion because it reminds me of the limited chili options (usually just Wendy’s) I had when living in Massachusetts from 1977-1979.  (For my penance, I’ll say 500 Hail Hatch prayers.)

Yam bisque, chocolate muffin and focaccia

Yam bisque, chocolate muffin and focaccia

At Sweet Tomatoes you can get a good, healthy meal at a reasonable price and come away quite satisfied.  You can also indulge in a high carbohydrate, high calorie meal.  The choices are delicious.

Sweet Tomatoes
10126 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
898-2171

LATEST VISIT: 22 February 2009
# OF VISITS: 12
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gorgonzola Spinach Salad, Wonton Salad