In the year 1880, La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís” (“The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi”) bore little semblance to the popular vacation destination and tourist town it is today. In fact, it was still pretty much a dusty frontier town of the old west with statehood more than a quarter century away. Despite a population growth of nearly forty percent over the previous decade, Santa Fe was hardly considered a burgeoning center for commerce, much less tourism. That would all change with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company, an event which heralded a new period of prosperity and growth.
The railroad facilitated trade between the New Mexico territory and the United States. In addition to trade in dry goods, foodstuffs, clothing and books, the railroad ferried materials such as bricks and galvanized tin which paved the way for architectural diversity. The facade of the Santa Fe Plaza, for example, would be transformed from a Spanish-Pueblo architectural style to a hybrid Spanish-Pueblo-Territorial style that persists today. Victorian style brick buildings became very much in vogue throughout the town. The arrival of the railroad signaled the passing of the Santa Fe Trail as a front page epitaph in a Santa Fe newspaper declared: “The Old Santa Fe Trail Passes Into Oblivion.”
The railroad also brought adventurous new residents and enthusiastic tourists enthralled by the exotic frontier west depicted by artists and photographers hired by the rail line. Local Native American and Hispanic arts and crafts were marketed to rail travelers, engendering artistic leanings which persist today. New neighborhoods sprung up around the Railyard for workers and their families. The Railyard became a hub of activity.
With advances in alternative transportation–primarily airlines and the interstate highway system–the railway system so instrumental in Santa Fe’s growth began a period of decline after World War II. By the mid 1980s, the area surrounding the Railyards was declared blighted and in dire need of redevelopment. The city’s plan called for developing new economic opportunities while insisting on the protection of the historical and cultural integrity of adjacent neighborhoods and retaining the original look and feel of the sprawling rail complex.
Today the Santa Fe Railyard is home to a vibrant and diverse assemblage of tenants, an eclectic mix which includes art galleries, shops, performance art spaces, one of the country’s best farmers’ markets and several much acclaimed restaurants. Commuter services run again, regularly ferrying passengers to and from the historic depot. Since its grand reopening in September, 2008, the Railyard has once again become a center of activity, commerce and tourism.
One of the early pioneers in the new Railyard era is the Zia Diner. Housed in a building originally built in 1880 as the railyard’s coal warehouse, a building now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the diner has been one of the city’s most enduring and popular restaurants since it opened on December 31st, 1986. Locally owned and operated, the Zia is renowned for its refined down-home American and regional comfort food served in an art deco environment.
The diner is the antithesis of the traditional greasy spoon diner and in fact, defies dictionary definitions which would have you believe a diner has to be a prefabricated building. The Food Network’s megawatt star Guy Fieri astutely pointed out during his taping of a Diners, Drive Ins and Dives segment, “in Jersey, it’s all about the stainless steel diner. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, welcome to the adobe Diner.” The sprawling multi-level dining room punctuated by large columns is the restaurant’s cynosure, moreso even than a semi-open kitchen. Despite the commodious accommodations, which also include a lunch counter and a separate bar area, the Zia can be a busy and bustling hub of activity during peak hours.
The lively restaurant prides itself on serving high quality, fresh and wholesome ingredients, many of them organic and locally sourced with sustainability in mind. Zia uses only New Mexico grass-fed organic beef procured from the River Canyon Ranch in Watrous, New Mexico. Free-range and additive-free chicken and eggs (from Taos Farm) are a standard as is fair-trade coffee. The full bar offers beer, wine and cocktails.
Perusing the diner’s offerings, Guy Fieri described it as “diner gone wild.” The menu may include many traditional diner standards, but they’re given the Zia treatment which usually means New Mexico-inspired variations on the classic interpretation of diner favorites. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served every day. The small plates and little snacks (appetizers) section of the lunch and dinner menu includes a smoked salmon quesadilla (with avocado, caramelized onions and Asadero cheese) which captivated the effusive Fieri. He described it as “a balance of flavors which complement each other so well” and declared this starter as “really good.”
An appetizer not quite as daring, but very good nonetheless showcases homemade potato chips studded with warm Wisconsin blue cheese. It’s an appetizer we’ve had at other restaurants, but none have done it quite as well. The chips are crispy and relatively low in salt. Fried to a dark golden hue, they’re substantial enough for scooping salsa, but not so thick as to be off-putting. A generous amount of wonderfully fetid and salty blue cheese provides a wonderful contrast. An order is large enough for a family of four.
The menu’s “Classic Comfort Entrees” are served in profuse portions. The entrees include American regional favorites such as Southern fried chicken, beef liver and onions (a rare diner offering nowadays) and Yankee pot roast as well as global comfort food fare such as English inspired fish and chips and shepherd’s pie and Mexican style Pescado Veracruz. A number of salads and sandwiches are available as are three burgers. Vegan and vegetarian-friendly entrees can also be found.
Any word association exercise invoking the term “comfort food” would probably draw “meatloaf” as its immediate response. The Zia Diner’s interpretation is very New Mexico-friendly. A large slab of grass-fed beef is made with both green chile and piñon, two Land of Enchantment favorites. The meatloaf is easily two-inches thick and it’s moist throughout, but the addictive roasted flavor of the green chile could be more pronounced. There may be more “piquancy” from pepper and garlic than there is from the chile. The piñon provides a nice textural contrast as well as its own unique “woodsy” flavor profile. The meatloaf is served with a mound (small mountain might be more accurate) of homemade mashed potatoes with a thick brown gravy.
Another traditional comfort food favorite popular throughout the East Coast and Midwest is Yankee Pot Roast, an entree my Chicago-born bride’s family had every Sunday. The Zia Diner’s rendition is made from all-natural, slow-braised beef. The slow braising renders it nearly fork tender, moist and succulent. It’s an entree which might just bring back memories of leisurely Sundays when family meals weren’t eaten in front of the television.
The Zia Diner has long been recognized for its desserts, especially for its pies, though many eschew dessert altogether in favor of the diner’s hand-blended shakes and malts. While the dessert offerings include a custard-based bread pudding (my favorite), you can also have its British “cousin,” sticky toffee pudding. Sticky toffee pudding is a light and very moist steamed cake drenched in a very sweet toffee sauce and covered with whipped cream or ice cream. It’s melt-in-your-mouth good, but oh so decadent and rich. As much as you’ll enjoy it, you may have to share it lest you watch your waist expand with every bite.
After a quarter-century, the Zia Diner remains a formidable force in the Santa Fe dining scene with no surcease in its popularity despite fierce competition now even within its Railway environs.
326 South Guadalupe Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Sticky Toffee Pudding, Homemade Potato Chips with Warm Wisconsin Blue Cheese