History and Hollywood have glamorized the Colt 45 revolver as the “gun that tamed the West.” Known as the “Peacemaker,” the .45 caliber pistol was used by all the famous lawmen and cowboy heroes of the old West. Wyatt Earp used the Colt 45. So did Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. It was often the deciding factor in the unrelenting battle of good and evil, the means by which law and order were established in a frontier in which chaos reigned.
Many aficionados of the Wild West would never list a genteel English emigrant named Fred Harvey in the company of Earp, Cody and the other rugged gun-toting legends. Recent history, however, has begun to recognize his contributions to the civilization of the frontier West. Harvey was, by no means, a man who (in the vernacular of Hollywood) “let his gun do his talking for him.” He was a restaurateur by trade and his contributions were in bringing good food at reasonable prices to the Old West. He served it in clean, elegant restaurants, introducing a touch of refinement and civility to an untamed frontier.
As the Santa Fe railroad moved across the west, Harvey Houses opened every hundred miles or so. One of Harvey’s crown jewels was Santa Fe’s La Fonda, considered to this day, the “grande dame” of Santa Fe’s hotels. La Fonda opened in 1929 and like many hotels in the Harvey system, it quickly established itself as a social center. La Fonda not only served the great food characteristic of all Harvey hotels, it had a romantic and upscale ambiance and was centered in the Plaza, the heart of the dusty city of Santa Fe.
Journalist Ernie Pyle, an Albuquerque resident at the time of his death, wrote that “life among the upper crust centered by daytime in the La Fonda Hotel. You could go there any time of day and see a few artists in the bar” and that “you never met anyone anywhere except at the La Fonda.” Pyle also observed with his great humor that “La Fonda is Spanish for “The Hotel,” but people don’t pay much attention to that. They just go on saying The-the-Hotel-hotel.” New Mexicans today are similarly amused by the anglicized “Rio Grande River,” another malapropism in that it is an exercise in redundancy.
Within the elegant and storied La Fonda is one of the city’s most beautiful dining rooms, La Plazuela, a sun brightened enclosed courtyard restaurant. La Plazuela is a visually stimulating venue in which to dine with much to see at every turn. It can also be an extremely busy place with long lines of diners waiting to be seated at peak times. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, La Plazuela features a creative menu of mostly Mexican and New Mexican favorites. Fresh, locally grown New Mexico ingredients are the basis for many of those entrees. Menus are seasonal so some of the dishes described below might not be available when you visit.
You won’t be seated for long before a bowl of salsa and a basket of chips are brought to your table. The salsa is refreshing and tangy with a nice bite to it. A rich red color, it is flecked with chopped cilantro, one of several discernible ingredients. The tomatoes have a sweet, fire-roasted flavor with pronounced freshness. The chips are thick and crispy, a fitting canvass for the salsa. These are among the best chips we’ve seen in any restaurant, a perfect complement to an outstanding salsa. You’ll request a refill or three of this salsa.
Entremeses, Ensaladas and Caldos (appetizers, salads and soups) are creative and tempting–a precursor of the entire meal’s excellence. There are several Santa Fe restaurants which serve duck quesadillas, always a nice way to start a meal. La Plazuela’s quesadilla de pato is a grilled flour tortilla cut into triangles and engorged with duck confit, roasted poblano chiles and Asadero cheese then served with a prickly-pear Tecate barbecue sauce. There is a lot going on in this appetizer–a melding of piquant, tangy, savory and sweet flavors that will please your palate. The barbecue sauce is wholly unnecessary (though it’s quite good).
Great as the duck quesadillas are, they might not even be the best quesadillas on the menu. That honor just might belong to the organic turkey quesadillas, your choice of flour or whole wheat tortillas engorged with roasted turkey breast, poblano rajas (slices) and Chihuahua cheese served with guacamole and a smoky chipotle sour cream. Every element of these quesadillas, from the pinto pony charred tortillas to the roasted poblano rojas, is perfectly prepared. It’s not often you can call quesadillas “melt-in-your-mouth” good, but these are.
Ask your friends what the signs of winter in New Mexico include and they’ll likely respond with such answers as unpredictable weather, cold nights and short days. Ask a foodie and the response might well be butternut squash bisque. It’s what this gastronome looks forward to most about the brumal season. La Plazuela’s version will make me miss winter. It’s a piping hot, flavorful bisque replete with flavor. The spice level, texture and the balance of ingredients–stock, cream and squash–are absolutely spot-on. Served with a red pepper creme fraiche and punctuated with toasted pumpkin seeds, it’s one of the very best of its genre.
One word of warning about the lunch menu–if you order the restaurant’s carne asada, you might never want to order any other entree. Many restaurants offer carne asada, but you never know what you’re going to get. By definition, carne asada is grilled meat, but at lesser dining establishments, this could mean a belt-tough slab of meat of unknown origin (maybe an emaciated cow) cut into strips. La Plazuela’s carne asada is among the best we’ve ever had. That’s because it’s a char-grilled New York strip steak as tender and juicy as you’ll find at any steak restaurant. A half-inch thick and as pure as the driven snow (no sinew or excess fat), it is also well seasoned and thoroughly delicious. The carne asada is served with frijoles refritos, a Chihuahua cheese enchilada with roasted tomato salsa, jalapeño-onion rajas, guacamole and pico de gallo, all of which are absolutely delicious. The guacamole and pico are enrobed in a large leaf of lettuce while the rajas sit atop the carne asada.
Northern New Mexico specialties occupy their own section of the lunch menu. Fajitas have been served in New Mexico for so long that this Texas born entree made it to this section of the menu. A trail of eyes follow the wait staff as they deliver the Fajitas a La Plancha (grilled on a metal plate) to your table. That’s because these babies are sizzling and leaving a trail of steam in their wake. You can choose from marinated strips of chicken or beef grilled with Spanish onions and bell peppers. The fajitas are served with either fresh corn or flour tortillas, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. The fajita marinade is subtle, but delicious, allowing the inherent flavor of the beef to shine. The beef is as tender as a bird’s heart and there’s plenty of it on the sizzling plate.
Meatloaf, the ubiquitous American comfort food favorite, is given a unique La Plazuela treatment, too. It’s a green chile meatloaf crafted from ground sirloin with a chipotle ketchup glaze and it’s served with smoked Cheddar-roasted garlic mashed potatoes and fresh seasonal vegetables. All meatloaf should be this good! The meatloaf itself is moist and tender even without the generous dousing in chipotle ketchup. Coupled with flecks of New Mexican green chile, the chipotle ketchup gives the meatloaf a pleasant piquancy. It’s not on the level of chile which will water your eyes, but it will get your attention. The Cheddar-roasted garlic mashed potatoes are a perfect complement with the chipotle ketchup serving as a gravy if you wish.
Another comfort food favorite which will embrace you in familiar flavors and warmth is La Plazuela’s unique take on chicken pot pie. A light pastry crust seals in an oval dish brimming with creamy organic free-range chicken breast, sweet peas, sweet onions, carrots, Guajillo chile and fresh cilantro. If you’re of the school that chicken pot pie is boring, this one will change your mind. Bite-sized chunks of chicken are wonderfully tender and delicious. The vegetables are farm-fresh. The pastry crust is light, buttery and flaky.
If you can’t decide whether to have tamales or chile rellenos, you can have both on the La Plazuela Combination which features a red chile pork tamale, chile relleno and a Mexican cheese enchilada topped with your choice of local Hatch red, green or Christmas style chile. As with all New Mexican entrees, the combination plate is served with your choice of pinto or black beans, pork posole, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, shredded lettuce and sopaipillas. You’ll clean this plate! The posole is an exemplar of what posole should taste like. Ditto for the tamale which has the perfect amount of corn masa and tender and red chile marinated pork. The pork is reminiscent of an excellent carne adovada. The chile relleno and cheese enchilada are quite good, too, but that tamale is memorable.
The sopaipillas are served steaming hot and have deep air pockets beckoning for honey and La Plazuela uses the real stuff, not the honey-flavored syrup. New Mexico claims credit for having invented the sopaipilla and it can be said that La Plazuela perfected it.
In the lobby on your way out, you might notice a placard reading “Thank you for your patience in WAITING while members of our Armed Forces are being served” with Fred Harvey’s distinct signature directly below. During World War II, Harvey Houses throughout the West provided respite and meals to troop trains loaded with America’s fighting men on their way to wartime postings. It’s a part of the Harvey heritage I most appreciate and one of the many reasons La Plazuela has earned my loyalty and business.
La Plazuela at La Fonda
100 E. San Francisco Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 February 2013
1st VISIT: 30 December 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Quesadilla de Pato, Organic Turkey Quesadilla, Salsa & Chips, Guacamole, Carne Asada, Fajitas a La Planch, Green Chile Meatloaf, Combination Plate, Chicken Pot Pie, Butternut Squash Bisque