Dave Who? From 1981 until its closing in 2008, the converted residence at 1115 Hickox Street was the home of Dave’s Not Here, a quaint and quirky neighborhood favorite loyalist locals described as “unforgettable.” Perhaps “memorable” would have been more appropriate, because as the Eagles reminded us in their 1976 hit song New Kid In Town, “they will never forget you ‘til somebody new comes along.” That somebody new…the new kid in town… the usurper who made many of us forget about Dave’s Not Here is the Tune-Up Café.
When it first launched, the Tune-Up Café was always mentioned in the same breath as its beloved predecessor. Over time, however, the equally funky Tune-Up Café has carved out its own identity and it’s no longer just “that restaurant which replaced Dave’s Not Here.” Vestiges of Dave’s Not Here remain if you look closely, but for the most part, it can truly be said that Dave’s now truly gone. The shoulder-to-shoulder personal space proximity dining room hasn’t grown up any, but a small covered patio has been added. Not even a mirror on the dining room’s west-facing wall can make the Tune-Up Café any larger.
The Tune-Up Café is the brainchild of Jesús and Charlotte Rivera, both veterans of the Santa Fe restaurant scene. Jesús is originally from El Salvador while Charlotte’s roots are in Northern Louisiana. They’re co-conspirators in developing a menu interesting enough to intrigue the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program which showcased the restaurant in an episode called “Neighborhood Favorites.” Host Guy Fieri called the Tune-Up Cafe “a perfect example of what we’re looking for on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” meaning “they scratch-cook just about everything, the place is full of character and the neighborhood totally digs it.”
Not surprisingly, the Food Network worthy menu features some Salvadoran specialties as well as Mexican and New Mexican entrees with a smattering of American favorites, too. Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch on weekends, the Tune-Up Cafe can no longer be categorized as just a “neighborhood favorite.” Fans of the Food Network’s “Triple D” show from throughout the fruited plain have made pilgrimages to the restaurant, too. Many of them have returned.
The menu once paid a playful mark of respect to its predecessor tenant with a burger named “Dave Was Here,” but that burger has been rechristened the Tune-Up Burger. It’s one of three burgers on the menu, including a vegan made burger–the brown rice nut burger (a housemade patty served on a brioche bun). The similarities between the Tune-Up Burger and the burgers served by Dave’s Not Here start with the sheer size and volume of these behemoth burgers. Dave’s was famous for its 9-ounce beef patty and the Tune-Up Burger has got to approximate that prodigious size. There are similar burger toppings, too, like the green chile, grilled onions and sautéed mushrooms, but the Tune-Up Café also offers Cheddar, Jack, Blue, Manchego and Provolone cheeses.
While Dave’s Not Here obtained its beef from a local market, the Tune-Up Café grinds its beef daily. One of the biggest differences in the burgers is in the bun. The Tune-Up Café uses a sesame seed covered brioche bun instead of the standard, run-of-the-mill bun. The Tune-Up burger comes standard with homemade mayo, lettuce, tomato and a pickle spear. The rest is up to you. The green chile warrants a “gringo” rating in the piquancy scale, but it’s got a nice roasted flavor.
The brioche bun is hard-crusted and formidable. That means that unlike so many standard burger buns, it won’t wilt and wither under the weight and moistness of the ingredients you may choose to pile on. It also means the bun may be a bit chewy, but on the Tune-Up Burger, that’s a good thing. You’ll have to open up as wide as you do for your dentist with this two-fisted masterpiece. It’s a gigantic burger with a lot of flavor. All burgers and sandwiches are served with hand-cut French fries.
The Tune-Up Café serves up its own rendition of the seemingly de rigueur Cuban sandwich. Where many Cuban sandwiches in the area seem to be waifishly thin with parsimoniously portioned ingredients, the Cubano is thick and generously engorged with its ingredient melange. The canvass for the Cubano is a ciabatta roll which is dressed with a citrus and garlic marinated pork loin, cured ham and Swiss cheese. The menu indicates this sandwich is pressed, but you wouldn’t know it the way the ingredients bulge. In any case, the restaurant’s panini grill must be super-sized to accommodate this Cubano. It’s an excellent sandwich, one which can easily be shared. It’s one of three sandwiches on the menu, the most intriguing being a Ginger Chicken Sandwich on ciabatta with Provolone and basil aioli.
In New Mexico’s melting pot of cultural cuisine, one cuisine which has captured the fancy of culinarily intrepid diners is Salvadoran cuisine. New Mexican diners who have embraced Salvadoran cuisine have one-up on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri who had never even had a pupusa until his visit to the Tune-Up Cafe. He called it “crazy good,” effusively praising the “crispy, crunchy masa on the outside with the corn and the cheese oozing out of it.” It warranted a high-five for the chef along with the comment, “you have completely train wrecked me, man.”
The pupusa is the national snack of El Salvador; it’s a thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients. Unlike New Mexican tortillas, Salvadoran tortillas are made with no baking powder and very little (if any) salt. They’re made with a maize masa. Of all the pupusas we’ve ever had, none have the pronounced corn taste of the pupusas at the Tune-Up Café. None are any bigger. Where the standard pupusa seems to be about four-inches in diameter, these are roughly the size of a pancake. Two different pupusas, served two per order, adorn the menu. Our favorite of the two is stuffed with flank steak, chile pasado and queso fresco.
Accompanying each order of pupusas is a Salvadoran cabbage salad somewhat resembling the pinkish pickled relishes served at some Mexican restaurants. Curtido is made with pickled cabbage, onions and just a hint of red pepper. The Tune-Up Cafe makes the best curtido I’ve ever had, so good it will postpone enjoying the pupusa itself.
Another delightful Salvadoran entree is the Huevos El Salvadorenos, scrambled eggs with scallions and tomatoes, refried beans, pan-fried banana, crema and corn tortillas. It’s not exactly a novel concept with similar offerings–the Huevos Motuluenos at Cafe Pasqual and Huevos Yucatecos at Tecolote Cafe–being familiar to Santa Fe diners. The Tune-Up Cafe’s huevos would be much improved with chile, but with both red and green tinged with cumin, we opted against it. The highlight of this dish is the melding of sweet, caramelized pan-fried bananas and the slightly sour-savory crema. The huevos themselves are perfectly prepared.
Sweet-toothed diners who look for a high carb morning pick-up will enjoy the cinnamon rolls, spiral-shaped beauties large enough to share. The cinnamon rolls are redolent with cinnamon and are iced generously. The Tune-Up Cafe’s buttermilk pancakes are among the very best in town. Best of all, they’re served with real syrup and can be topped with blueberries, bananas or chocolate chips.
In time we may forget what life was like without the Tune-Up Café. It may already have supplanted its predecessor for local loyalty, a funky ambiance and a menu replete with deliciousness.
1115 Hickox Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 January 2013
1st VISIT: 10 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: El Salvadoran Pupusas, Dave Was Here Burger, Cubano, Hand-cut French Fries