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San Marcos Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

San Marcos Cafe about ten miles south of Santa Fe

Contrary to some popular opinion, roosters don’t crow just to be noisy or annoying. They crow as a sign of territorial advertising; they’re protecting their turf. At San Marcos Cafe, the cacophonous din of crowing roosters is understandable considering the throngs of hungry patrons infringing on their turf.

There was one famous fowl at the San Marcos Cafe who didn’t chicken out at the sight of guests.  Buddy the Chicken, master of all he surveyed, served as the restaurant’s unofficial valet parking attendant and maitre de.  Nattily attired in polychromatic plumage and a black bow tie, Buddy welcomed one all and actually answered to his name.  When he passed away in 1996, he received an above-the-fold obituary in the newspaper.  Name one other chicken who’s ever been honored posthumously other than with “Bless this food we are about to receive…”

It’s not just roosters that parade happily on the bucolic grounds of this charming old adobe establishment on the Turquoise Trail about 15 miles south of Santa Fe. Peacocks display their glorious multi-hued plumage while peahens play hard to get. Chickens roam freely looking for the right spots to hold their peck-nics.  Turkeys splay their own plumage like politicians puffing out their chests after another session in the roundhouse.

SanMarcos11

Turkeys lounging in the back yard

The menagerie of fine feathered fowl at San Marcos Cafe may not even be as colorful as the restaurant’s dining areas which are decorated in country kitchen meets Santa Fe hippie style replete with painted Spanish trasteros, old enameled stoves, Western art and brickerbrack strewn about. There’s something to see in every nook and cranny of this delightfully eclectic dining treasure.

The San Marcos Cafe is hardly a large restaurant.  In fact, you’d better make reservations, especially on weekends when more guests make their way from the Duke City area.   Waits sometimes exceed half an hour without reservations. While it’s worth the wait, you’ll be the envy of dozens of patrons lining up outside the door as you stride past them to a table reserved just for you.  Seating is, shall we say, rather intimate, but close proximity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  There’s something about being out in the country that seems to bring out not just civility, but downright friendliness among diners at the San Marcos Cafe.

Serving New Mexico for more than a quarter-century, the San Marcos Cafe almost never was.  When the owners purchased the building and its five acres, plans were to convert it into a livestock feed store.  With more space than was necessary for the store, a restaurant seemed a natural fit for the remaining space.

Salsa and chips at the San Marcos Cafe

Salsa and chips at the San Marcos Cafe

There’s also something for everyone on the menu with eye-catching daily specials written on the chalkboard. An absolute “must have” are the cinnamon rolls which might surpass the famous Frontier rolls as the best in northern New Mexico. Taller than they are wide, these rolls are flaky and light, wholly unlike the doughy rolls that sit on your stomach for hours. Served warm and lightly iced with just the right amount of cinnamon, they’re big enough to share, but you might not want to because they’re so good.

Another great way to start a meal is with the restaurant’s salsa and blue corn chips served on blue speckled tin ware. A pronounced taste of rich red chile mingles with onions, garlic, jalapenos, cilantro and other ingredients to make this some of the best salsa in the area. This salsa isn’t always as piquant as fire-breathing New Mexicans might like, but its freshness and use of chile makes it delicious.  The chips are oversized, a perfect vehicle for Gil-sized portions of salsa.

An equally formidable appetizer are the restaurant’s quesadillas, three flour tortillas layered with beans, cheese and green chile accompanied by a dollop of wonderful guacamole and sour cream. The guacamole is made with avocados at the height of fresh perfection. Like the salsa, it isn’t piquant in the least, but has a pleasant garlicky taste and is unfailingly creamy.

The blue corn chicken enchiladas, a chalkboard special, are made with a green chile whose fragrant aroma rises like steam off the hot plate in which it is served. The green chile tastes as wonderful as it smells, imbuing the chicken with the quality of mouth-watering deliciousness. It may sound like a broken record if I say the chile isn’t always piquant, but it is as good as you’ll find anywhere. (To paraphrase an old cigarette commercial, “what do you want hot chile or good chile”.)

Another off-the-board special which will blow you away is the smoked chicken sausage (hopefully not made from the cavorting chickens in the yard) served with eggs the way you like them, breakfast potatoes and warm, buttered garlic bread. The sausage is nearly as sweet as longoniza, the wonderful spicy sweet Filipino sausage, but isn’t nearly as greasy. It’s a different kind of sweet than you’ll find in Italian sausage which relies on fennel for its sweetness. We couldn’t discern any fennel on the chicken sausage but did find several pine nuts. In any case, it’s some of the very best sausage you’ll find anywhere.

The San Marcos Cafe’s specials don’t just lean toward New Mexican specialties. During our second visit, we were treated to a “countrified” version of coq a vin, the famous French chicken stew some diners consider hoity toidy. This version is made with corkscrew pasta and thanks to a generous application of peppercorns, imparts an au poivre  reminiscence. The chicken, hopefully not one of Buddy’s progeny, is tender, meaty and delicious.

Cafe San Marcos chicken fajitas

Chicken fajitas

Still another special special are the chicken fajitas. They don’t arrive at your table sizzling as they might at other restaurants, but that doesn’t make them any less wonderful. Red, green and yellow peppers as well as onions are grilled to perfection, not quite al dente, but crisp enough without being soggy. We haven’t been able to discern everything on the fajita marinade but appreciate the variety of sweet and savory tastes with which it imbues the mostly white chicken pieces.

A restaurant critic on the Food Network one extolled the virtues of chalkboard specials, reasoning that if a chef lists them, they’re bound to be good…and so far every entree I’ve described has been a chalkboard special. That’s not because the Cafe San Marcos’ standard menu items aren’t worth mentioning. Quite to the contrary.  Both the restaurant’s breakfast and lunch menus are somewhat on the abbreviated side with about a dozen items on each.  A visit to the chalkboard is imperative with as tempting as you’ll ever see scrawled anywhere items that might elicit involuntary drooling as you peruse them.

New Mexico Crepe

It probably won’t surprise you then to read me extolling yet another chalkboard special.  Calling it a “New Mexico crepe” (pictured above) may be just a bit of a misnomer in that it has little semblance to a French crepe.  The New Mexico crepe might even be closer to a quiche.  The bottom layer is eggs folded over almost like an omelet.  Heaped upon that bottom layer are beef, sausage, cheese, sour cream, salsa, guacamole and more.  Every forkful is an adventure in surprises as the ingredients coalesce into pure deliciousness.  This entree is served with the San Marcos Cafe’s version of country fried potatoes which are pan-fried to perfection with a crunchy crust that belies the potato innards which somehow retain a soft, moistness.

The restaurant’s breakfast pork chops served with country biscuits and gravy are some of the best we’ve had in New Mexico, so good Kim would be tempted to order them every visit were it not for the many surprises on the chalkboard. The pork chop is about half an inch thick and grilled to perfection. Swimming in the light brown gravy are bits of delicious sausage.  The biscuits are perfect–neither crumbly or stiff, but with a velvety consistency that makes them perfect sopping vehicles for the gravy.  Before long, you might be dipping everything on your table into that delicious gravy.  It’s that good.

Bill Robens,” a very good friend of this blog turned us on to San Marcos Cafe’s red chile stew.  Green chile stew is almost a de rigueur offering at restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment, but as Bill points out, red chile stew is hard to find.  To be clear, this is not chile con carne or chile con frijoles.  In terms of composition, it’s got everything green chile has got save for the green chile.

Red Chile Stew with Guacamole and Sour Cream

Red Chile Stew with Guacamole and Sour Cream

You’ll wish it was winter at first bite of the red chile stew where its belly warming properties will be most appreciated.  The stew is served hot, not just piquant hot, but steaming hot–and not the kind of hot created by a microwave.  The chile has a nice bite to it, but a more prevalent flavor is that of a rich, almost intensely beefy stock.  The beef is carne adovada tender and there’s plenty of it.  The potatoes are perfectly cooked as are the beans.  This is one soup which truly earns the sobriquet “comfort food.”

Lest I forget, similar to The Shed, another New Mexico dining treasure, the San Marcos Cafe serves some entrees (even New Mexican food entrees) with lightly toasted garlic bread.  It’s just one of the special touches that make this restaurant one of my favorite get-away destinations.

Garlic bread at the San Marcos Cafe

Garlic bread at the San Marcos Cafe

As with many country restaurants, the Cafe San Marcos does dessert well–very well. One of the specialties of the house is a hot apple pie with a bourbon sauce served a’ la mode with a rich, creamy vanilla ice cream. The bourbon sauce leaves the same warm sensation on your throat as the adult beverage does and is a marriage made in culinary heaven with the ice cream and pie.  There is no apple pie filling in this pie, only sweet apples sliced thinly.  The apples are indeed sweet, but not so sweet that you can’t appreciate their tartness.

Another surprising dessert treat is the Cafe’s rendition of pineapple upside down cake, the least surprise of which is that it’s sliced like pie. It’s also served cool. The cake is very moist and dense with a pronounced sweetness that’s punctuated by the slight tartness of the almost caramelized pineapple. A large dollop of whipped cream is superfluous.

Michael and Jane Stern, America’s leading authorities on “road food” noted on their Roadfood Web site that “a heretofore unrecognized rule of finding good Roadfood” is to “look for restaurants with live poultry strutting around. Inspiring that observation was a visit to the San Marcos Cafe which they called “a real find” with “one of the best cinnamon rolls we’ve ever devoured.”

There are several items at the San Marcos Cafe for which the superlative “best” might apply.  It is one of the best “get-away from Santa Fe without going too far” destinations and a real treat.

Apple Pie A La Mode

Apple Pie A La Mode

An authentic feed store on an attached building carries supplies any Western rancher would appreciate and adds to the charm of an outstanding restaurant on one of New Mexico’s most scenic drives.

San Marcos Cafe
3877 State Road 14
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 471-9298
LATEST VISIT: 28 October 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cinnamon Roll, Chicken Enchiladas, Chicken Sausage, Pork Chops, Apple Pie, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, New Mexican Crepe, Red Chile, Salsa and Chips, Guacamole, Quesadilla

San Marcos Cafe on Urbanspoon

Prickly Pear Bar & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Prickly Pear Bar & Grill

Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield offered the following advice to his son: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” To Chesterfield, focusing on a singular task was not only a practical way of structuring one’s time; it was a sign of intelligence. “This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.” 

In university life as in the workforce of the 21st century, the notion that to work efficiently we have to focus on one task at a time is fairly well understood.  To understand that notion, however, is not necessarily to abide by its wisdom.  Students eat lunch in front of the television with their laptops open as they cram for a test, taking frequent breaks to tweet and post on Facebook while sending emails and chatting online, too.  The same research which has borne out that multi-taskers are most certainly not being more productive, reveals we feel more emotionally satisfied, more fulfilled and more efficient in our work when we’re doing many things at once.

The main dining room at the Prickly Pear

My own unofficial research, the result of hundreds of restaurant meals over the years, is more inconclusive.  Some restaurants whose menus are a veritable compendium of multi-faceted, multi-tasking cooking–a comprehensive compilation of almost every conceivable item of a specific genre–actually execute their menus very well though it could certainly be argued that if those same restaurants focused on a select few items instead of several dozen, they would be even better.  To find a restaurant with an abbreviated menu actually invites the question, “can there possibly be enough variety to please finicky American diners?”.

Take Albuquerque’s Prickly Pear Bar & Grill restaurant for example.  The lunch menu lists only seventeen items.  That’s it!  At some restaurants, seventeen items might constitute just the appetizer section of a multi-page menu.  Our first impulse, before even reading Prickly Pear’s menu, was to turn the laminated single page menu over to see where the rest of the menu was.  There is no second page.  There’s also no lengthy perusal or carefully weighed deliberation over too many items to fully appreciate.  Frankly, it’s a welcome change.

Bean Dip, Salsa and Chips

The Prickly Pear Bar & Grill opened in September, 2012 at the former site of several short-lived restaurant endeavors including Sabroso’s, a New Mexican restaurant similar to the Prickly Pear.  Ironically the abbreviated menu belies the capacious confines of the restaurant which offers a plenitude of both table and booth seating.  Contrary to the restaurant’s name, the menu doesn’t include nopalitos, the Spanish term for the verdant strips of prickly pear cactus pads which have long been a staple in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking.

You will see prickly pear cacti used in the restaurant’s decor, but not the ones with painful spines and prickles.  Instead you’ll find  multi-hued artist’s renditions of the prickly pear in the form of a tin sculpture.  The restaurant is a very attractive, artsy milieu adorned in a soft Southwestern color palette and hard-wood floors.  A sizeable waiting area with large enveloping couches has the feel of a comfortable family den.  An adjacent full-service bar offers several televisions for your viewing pleasure.  The overhead lighting above the booths is in the shape of balloon envelopes, fashioned from wire.

Pan Fry Tacos: Shredded Beef, Shredded Chicken, Carne Adovada

Though the menu may list only seventeen items, many of them offer variations.  Enchiladas, for example, can be made with blue corn or yellow corn tortillas and constructed with shredded beef, ground beef, carne adovada, chicken or just cheese.  You can have them with red or green chile (or both).  The menu does have five line items listing different types of tacos: pan fry tacos, taco salad, puffed tacos (corn masa tortillas stuffed with sundry ingredients), tacos al pastor and fish tacos.  Viva variety.

While you’re perusing the menu, your server will bring a basket of chips and a metal ramekin of salsa to your table along with a bowl of bean dip.  Your first order is complimentary.  Thereafter you’ll be charged a pittance.  The salsa is quite good, a rich red sauce punctuated by red chile.  It may be the most piquant item on the menu.  The bean dip is a wonderful surprise, a bowl of hot beans, shredded white Cheddar and green chile.  It’s wholly unlike the cold Frito Lays bean dip you might remember.  The chips are light and thin, but formidable enough to hold up under the weight of Gil-sized portions of salsa.

Blue Corn Enchiladas, Shredded Beef, Two Fried Eggs (Over Easy), Red and Green Chile

Prickly Pear’s pan fry tacos are a good option, offering versatility and variety.  You can ask that they be made with your choice of ground beef, shredded beef, carne adovada or chicken or you can mix-and-match because each order comes with three tacos.  You also have your choice of pan fried corn or flour tortillas and if you’re tired of tacos which are mostly lettuce and tomatoes, you’ll be happy to see that most of the “salad” is on the side and you can add as much or as little as you’d like.  A triumvirate of carne adovada, chicken and shredded beef tacos crafted on pan fried flour tortillas is what my Kim had during our inaugural visit.  The tortillas are fried lightly so they remain pliable and soft.  Each of the three tacos we sampled had their own distinct flavor profile and were seasoned well.  Only at Monroe’s has she enjoyed flour tortilla-based tacos more.

Enchiladas are also a good bet.  At the Prickly Pear, they’re served stacked as so many Northern New Mexico restaurants prepare them.  Try them with  perfectly prepared blue corn tortillas, circular orbs which drape over a heaping helping of shredded beef topped with melted shredded Cheddar cheese, two eggs over-easy with Christmas-style chile.  The red chile has very little piquancy and we found it a bit over-salted, but the green chile is quite good.  It’s got a bit of a bite and a roasted smokiness.  It’s the superior of the two chiles.

Chile Relleno topped with green chile

Available as a plate or a la carte are some of the best chile rellenos in town.  A large New Mexico chile is engorged with a white Monterrey Jack cheese then topped with your choice of red or green chile and even more cheese.  The chile rellenos’ best feature is a light egg batter which allows the rellenos to remain crispy without compromising the integrity of the chile itself.  Top it with green chile and you’ll get a double dose of a pleasantly piquant chile with a good flavor.

Entrees are served with your choice of two of the following: beans, rice, calabasitas and green chile mashed potatoes.  The beans are an absolute must-have.  While several New Mexican restaurants prepare their beans in lard, the beans at Prickly Pear have the unmistakable bouquet and flavor of smoky bacon.  Bacon and beans are one of my favorite combinations, made even better with shredded white Cheddar.  The green chile mashed potatoes are a pleasant surprise though we thought they lacked creaminess and the green chile didn’t really make its piquant presence felt.  Still, it’s a refreshing change from the de rigueur beans and rice choices.

Two Sides: Beans and Green Chile Mashed Potatoes

The Prickly Pear Bar & Grill may not have a War and Peace novel-sized menu as other New Mexican restaurants have, but the few items it does offer are prepared well and are generally quite good. It’s a restaurant which has figured out that you can still have great diversity with a select few items.

Prickly Pear Bar & Grill
5210 San Mateo Blvd, N.E. Map.8060f72
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 October 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Relleno, Pan Fried Tacos, Enchiladas, Salsa and Chips, Bean Dip, Sopaipillas

Prickly Pear Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

El Parasol – Española, New Mexico

El Parasol in Pojoaque, New Mexico

El Parasol in Espanola, New Mexico

If you were in a hurry, driving through Española on a hot summer day in the early 1980s might have raised the diastolic level (the lower number) of your blood pressure to the level of the temperature gauge. That’s because on Sunday afternoons, Española’s main thoroughfares were the domain of the lowriders, elaborately painted late-model cars (many with intricate religious murals on the hood) whose suspension is replaced with hydraulic cylinders to allow the car to be drastically lowered when parked and raised back up for travel.

Española etiquette dictated that no one, not even the law, interfered with the low-and-slow (sounds like barbecue) pace these sparkling cars set as they hugged the pavement on both lanes for the entire length and breadth of the city limits. The lowered late-model cars with their custom paint jobs, tiny steering wheels and chrome wheels were in no hurry; attracting attention was a major aim of lowriding. As a result, it might take an hour or more to drive through Española. Because of its tradition of highlighting the cars as part of local culture and the high number of lowriders per capita, the city earned the sobriquet of the “lowrider capital of the world.”

Green Chile Cheeseburger

Although the Sunday parade of “bajitos” cruising Espanola’s streets isn’t quite as prevalent as it once was, no one in the world appreciates fine cars as much as the good folks in Española. Many of those fine cars still drive slowly as they congregate at essential city landmarks such as El Parasol, a “taco stand” adjacent to the world-famous El Paragua restaurant. They drive slowly in hopes that a parking spot will soon be vacated and they can take its place under the towering alamos next to the restaurant. Once the car is parked, it’s but a short walk to El Parasol where patrons queue up sometimes ten deep or more for excellent New Mexican cuisine.

El Parasol (the umbrella) doesn’t just handle El Paragua’s diner overflow. It’s become a dining destination in its own right. El Parasol became so successful in Española that two other El Parasol restaurants have since been launched, one in Pojoaque and one in Santa Fe.  Similar to its elder brethren, the Pojoaque restaurant has a menu posted on its exterior wall. It also has a pick-up window, but there is no intercom in which to place a take-out order. All actual ordering and pick-up is done inside the restaurant.

Underneath all that lettuce is probably the best Chicken-Guacamole Taco in New Mexico

With apologies to Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers and El Farolito, El Parasol just might serve up the best green chile cheeseburger in Rio Arriba county and with the addition of the Pojoaque and Santa Fe restaurants, one of the very best in Santa Fe county. The ingredients–lettuce, tomato, pickle, mustard and green chile–may seem pretty standard, but when crafted in either the tiny wooden hut in Española or the more conventional stucco restaurant in Pojoaque, those burgers meld into an explosion of taste. The green chile zings with piquant flavor, the hand-formed beef patty is thick and juicy (even better if you order a double-meat green chile cheeseburger) and the entire creation is piled high–just the way New Mexicans love it. Burgerphiles even have the option of a burger dressed with guacamole, bacon and green chile–three great tastes that taste even better together. This is a two-fisted burger, but not always a multi-napkin affair because the beef patty is usually fairly well done.

El Parasol is also renowned for its quesadillas, tacos, burritos, tamales and even arroz con pollo (a rice and chicken soup) and menudo. This is all Norteño food, the type of which Northern New Mexicans of my generation grew up with. You can’t discuss the cuisine of the state’s northern half without mentioning chicharonnes burrito. El Parasol’s which features bite-sized crackling pork that seems tailor-made for the restaurant’s savory green chile and its fruity-piquant bite.

Tamale

Tamale at El Parasol

If tacos are more your style and you also crave variety, the Ana Maria Combinacion plate comes with a crisp shelled shredded-chicken taco, a crisp shelled shredded-beef taco and a soft sirloin taco with guacamole. The scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author and New Mexico gem Cheryl Alters Jamison loves the chicken-guacamole tacos. When she recommends something, you can take it to the bank. These are some of the very best tacos you’ll find anywhere. The chicken is moist and delicious while the guacamole is creamy and rich. It’s a marriage made inside a crisp fried taco shell.

While an umbrella may shield you from the hot sun or a rare New Mexico downpour, El Parasol will shield you from dreary food. It is an Española treasure every bit as alluring as the lowrider culture.

El Parasol
603 Santa Cruz Road
Española, New Mexico
(505) 753-8852
LATEST VISIT: 21 October 2012
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 19
COST: $
BEST BET: Beef Taco, Chicharon Burrito, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Tamale, Chicken-Guacamole Taco

El Parasol - Española on Urbanspoon