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Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen on Cordova Road in New Mexico

In 1712, the provincial governor for the kingdom of New Mexico decreed that henceforth, an annual reenactment of Diego De Vargas’ triumphant reentry into Santa Fe would be celebrated every year. Santa Feans have dutifully obeyed the proclamation ever since, making the Fiesta de Santa Fe the oldest civic celebration of its kind in North America.  Approaching its 400th year, the Fiesta is renown not only for its pageantry and pomp, but for its respectful reflection on a significant historical event.

By 1951, however, the Fiesta as we know it today, had degenerated into a parody of its former self, a victim of crass commercialism which Santa Fe’s Pulitzer Prize winning writer Oliver La Farge called “a shabby commercial carnival.”  Incensed that the Fiesta was overrun by concessionaires who turned the Fiesta into “a hot dog and popcorn affair,” La Farge recruited a contingent of Santa Fe’s movers and shakers in the business, religious and arts communities to restore dignity to the Fiestas.  Both the Museum of New Mexico and the Catholic Church sided with La Farge’s group.

The tortillera at Maria’s shows how it’s done

It took the ouster of several Fiesta Council members who had fostered the circus-like atmosphere wrought by deep pocketed concessionaires before the Church, the Museum and Santa Fe’s business community would once again lend their support to the Fiesta. Together they sought to make the 1952 Santa Fe Fiesta the very best ever. It can be disputed as to whether or not this admirable goal was or was not accomplished, but one thing is indisputable–dignity was returned to the Fiesta.

The Santa Fe Fiesta in 1952 was significant for another reason–the intoxicating aromas and delicious flavors emanating from a modest take-out kitchen on Cordova Road.  This was Santa Fe’s introduction to the cooking of Maria Lopez.  Belying its relatively small digs, the kitchen produced an ambitious menu of popular New Mexican favorites including the tortilla burger which Maria herself claims to have invented.

Salsa and Chips

In short order, Maria’s traditional Northern New Mexican cooking became so popular that her husband Gilbert built a patio, alas on a rare year in which rains were relentless.  Covering the patio with the vigas and roof that are still in place today, the humble kitchen would grow into a restaurant which has since become a Santa Fe landmark and one of the city’s most popular dining destinations.

The Lopez family sold Maria’s to Don Hammond, then Chief of the New Mexico State Police.  Maria’s would pass hands several more times–from Chief Hammond to his bartender Charlie Lopez, then to Peter Gould and Priscilla Hoback (daughter of Rosalea Hoback, founder of Santa Fe’s iconic Pink Adobe) and finally to Santa Fe native Al Lucero and his wife Laurie who owned Maria’s from 1985 through 2013 when they sold to restaurant impresario Gerald Peters’ Santa Fe Dining group.

Green Chile Egg Rolls

The venerable Maria’s retains vestiges of its age, but it wears them well.  The original take-out kitchen and patio were in the area which today houses Maria’s bar and modern kitchen.  As you walk into the main dining room, the host station is what may once have been a colonial dresser atop of which pitchers of tea and ice water are perched.  The distressed wood planked floors are timeworn and uneven. White-washed walls are festooned with Western art.  Carved wood beams painted white support blond planks.  Suspended from the ceiling are wagon wheels which have been converted into light fixtures, some spangled in neon.

At one corner of the main dining room is a small (maybe 10X10) room bisected by glass and tile.  A solitary figure, a tortillera, works behind the glass, assiduously kneading dough into small balls then rolling them into flat disks about a foot in diameter.  The tortillera then places the raw tortillas on a preheated cast iron plate, turning them frequently to ensure they are cooked evenly.  The tortilla is ready when it begins to puff up with air pockets and becomes the color of a pinto pony.  Making flour tortillas is a time-honored process that requires experience and expertise.  Maria’s tortilleras know what they’re doing.

Margaritas from Maria’s: Peach at right, mango at left

As you peruse the menu, a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa are brought to your table.  The chips are a bit over-salted, perhaps an inducement to order a margarita or five (more on margaritas later), but they’re crispy and delicious.  The salsa is fiery, easily the most piquant item on the menu.  It appears to be made from dried chiles, seeds and all.  Owner Al Lucero is a renown expert on salsa, having served as judge for New Mexico Magazine‘s second annual salsa contest.

On the foreword to The Great Margarita Book, Robert Redford wrote, “When people have asked of a place to eat in Santa Fe, I find myself referring them to Maria’s. Is the food good? Yes. But the margaritas they are the best. When you read this book, you’ll know why.”  The Great Margarita Book is Al Lucero’s magnus-opus, one of a number of books on the subject he has written.  Lucero has made Maria’s THE place for margaritas, earning “best of the city” honors for more than a decade.

Carne Adovada with Rice (Soupy Beans not pictured)

The menu explains why Maria’s margaritas are so special: “At Maria’s, we have over 100 REAL Margaritas from which to choose!  But, what is a “real” Margarita? Simple. It’s one that’s made with “REAL” tequila, “REAL” triple-sec and “REAL” lemon or lime juice (we use fresh-squeezed lemon juice instead of lime, because of it’s year-round consistency). Real Tequila is a liquor made ONLY in Mexico, which has been distilled from the sugary juices extracted from the cooked heart of the Weber blue agave plant. To be considered true tequila, it must contain at least 51% of this agave juice (sugar). Most off-brands or “cheap” tequilas sold in the USA do not contain the required 51% agave sugar and by regulation, are not considered tequila.”

Maria’s menu includes many traditional Northern New Mexico entrees as well as some unique surprises such as the Santa Fe meets Philadelphia green chile Philly, thinly sliced Philly steak sauteed with new Mexico green chile and onions topped with melted Monterrey jack served in a folded homemade tortilla.  There may be no bigger surprise than the green chile egg rolls, two per order egg rolls stuffed with pork, shredded cabbage and carrots and green chile.  They’re served with a green chile dipping sauce.   If I’ve made the point recently that the worse egg rolls are those served in Chinese restaurants, Maria’s egg rolls emphasize that point.  These are fabulous!  My only complaint is that an order should include six to eight egg rolls.

Maria’s Stuffed Cheddar Burger

Among the New Mexican entrees, you can’t go wrong with carne adovada, fork-tender pork marinated in red chile and served with rice, beans (either refried or soupy) and a tortilla or sopaipilla (you should request both).  The pork shreds easily, a sign it’s been marinated slowly at low temperatures.  The chile is mild, but quite flavorful.  Use the tortilla as a “spoon” to scoop up the carne as native New Mexicans have been doing for generations.  The rice and soupy beans are both quite good, too.

Two bars on the same street in South Minneapolis became famous for serving a burger known regionally as the “Juicy Lucy.”  The Juicy Lucy is a cheeseburger in which the cheese melts inside the meat patty rather than on top of it.  The resultant molten core of cheese tends to erupt in volcano-like fashion when you first bite into it and has a tendency to scald the tongue and mouth.  Maria’s one-ups the Juicy Lucy with a burger called the Stuffed Cheddar Burger.

Sopaipillas

A large beef patty is stuffed with sharp Cheddar cheese, chopped sweet onion and New Mexican green chile then is charbroiled to your specification. It’s not only an adventurous burger, it’s a delicious one though the green chile could have been a bit more piquant. The beef patty is so thick, it takes a thick hamburger bun to hold it all together and true to Juicy Lucy tradition, the Cheddar erupts at first bite. If you love Cheddar, this is the burger for you!  It should be noted that Al Lucero was one of the two judges in the Green Chile Throwdown in which the Buckhorn Tavern‘s Bobby Olguin vanquished Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay.  Olguin knows green chile cheeseburgers very well and his restaurant’s unique rendition is quite good.

Many diners opt to have sopaipillas with honey for dessert.  The piping hot puffed treats are complimentary with several entrees, but additional sopaipillas can be purchased for a pittance.  Maria’s serves them with real honey.  Before you decide on having only sopaipillas for dessert, make sure to peruse the menu.  You might not want to pass up the homemade flan, traditional New Mexican natillas or homemade Mexican chocolate mousse.  The natillas are served in a goblet ringed with a wholly unnecessary whipped cream.  Get past the whipped cream and you’ll thoroughly enjoy the thin custard dish with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.

Natillas

Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen is usually packed, a testament to how highly regarded it is among locals and tourists alike.  At nearly sixty years of age, like the Santa Fe Fiesta, it is still going strong with no surcease to its popularity in sight.

Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen
555 West Cordova Road
Santa Fe, NM
983-7929
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 04 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Stew, Sopaipillas, Carne Adovada, Maria’s Stuffed Cheddar Burger, Natillas, Tortillas

Maria's New Mexican Kitchen on Urbanspoon

  • mike lee says:

    My meals here over the years were not very memorable either. I went there with some frequency because it was right across the street from my job. What finally made me quit the place permanently was a disturbing number of high risk violations that the New Mexican printed over the years in the State’s food inspection reports. Yes – they always corrected them by the follow up visits BUT how long did these violations go on.
    But really, the poor food and service is enough to avoid this place even though the crowds of tourists don’t seem to mind.

    February 21, 2009 at 12:15 PM
  • jbu says:

    Margaritas were excellent. We had the 100%. I had the green chile stew which was just awful. My husband had a burrito which was average. The couple we were with shared the spare ribs which were excellent. I would say nice for a drink but the food is hit or miss.

    September 29, 2009 at 10:32 PM
  • lobo59 says:

    I have always liked Maria’s, but the fact is, the food is very inconsistent. After eating dinner there about two years ago, with service that was awful and food that was forgettable, I decided not to return. If this restaurant were in Los Angeles, I’d eat at it frequently and rave about its food. However, in Santa Fe and ABQ there are too many other competing restaurants that do a better job. I love the feeling of the old building, but the consistency ends there.

    We have had some very excellent meals at this establishment, but also had poor service and on occasion, poorly prepared food.

    Our visit today will probably be our last. The lady who seated us gave the impression that we had interrupted her reading and that we were not particularly welcome. No “Hello,” no smile, not even a “May I help you?” Our server was excellent, however, which made up in part for the cold welcome.

    Chips (salty) and salsa (red chile something) were served immediately, our orders were taken quickly and our food delivered promptly. And it all was nice and hot. The sopaipillas were nice and pillowy, steamy hot, but also a little thick. The best sopaipillas, in my experience are at Padillas, in ABQ. If I give them an “A”, I’d give Maria’s a “B.”

    My wife ordered the tamale plate with pork and green chile. She had had this before and liked it a lot. This time the tamales were mostly masa, and she could barely taste the pork. She rated the green chile highly, but that did not compensate for the sad tamales. She was very disappointed.

    I had the enchilada plate with beef, blue corn tortillas and Christmas. I had “red” on our last visit and it was both mild in “heat” and bland in taste. This time the red was excellent (no cumin, Gil), it brought a few beads of sweat to my forehead and tasted great. In fact, the enchiladas were quite good, overall. However, I am not a fan of either the accompanying rice nor the refried beans.

    I must say, however, that Maria’s is an institution in Santa Fe. It was the first place our realtor showed us when we moved here. It is packed both for lunch and dinner, and the customers are pretty much evenly split between Hispanic and Anglo. So a lot of people like it.

    Once more, however, I doubt that we will return. This meal was too typical. One person satisfied, the other disappointed. It is just too inconsistent in both service and food for me.

    November 24, 2009 at 3:13 PM
  • Ruben says:

    Gil, I was up in Santa Fe a few weeks ago on business. I stopped at Maria’s for dinner afterwards. The carne adovada was okay, but not great. The biggest disappointment by far, however, was the margarita. I ordered a premium margarita, one that ostensibly contained Hornitos Reposado tequila, as opposed to the standard Sauza tequila.

    Let me go off on a slight tangent here to provide some context on the rest of my comments. In our household, my wife was in the habit of making margaritas with Sauza or Cuervo gold, the run of the mill, non-premium, tequilas. She kept wondering what was wrong with the mix she was using because the margaritas would invariably have a harsh taste. I finally replaced the low end tequilas with some of the Hornitos Reposado tequila, and instantly the mix improved, or so my wife thought. Turns out that it wasn’t the mix that was creating a harsh taste, it was the tequila itself. We now get requests for our margarita mix recipe from guests.

    But I digress. I ordered the premium tequila (Hornitos) margarita at Maria’s and I couldn’t believe how harsh it was. I have some doubts about whether I got a real premium tequila in my margarita. I inquired as much with the waitress who took it back to the bartender, but it came back just as harsh as before. Maybe this was just a one time, fluke event, but I’d like to share this information with your readers. It’s possible they’ve had similar experiences that will corroborate my experience.

    July 5, 2011 at 10:25 PM
  • AmyO says:

    I always loved stopping at Maria’s for a Margarita (or two!) before heading off to catch the Rail Runner back to ABQ. Last time, we took a third person with us to indoctrinate them into the combo of their red chile with a Margarita.

    It was not at a meal time and we had already eaten lunch in Santa Fe. Service was terrible and rude – as if we were bothering them by coming in to the restaurant. We sat at the bar and I asked for 2 a la carte red enchiladas and 3 Margaritas. Explaining that we weren’t very hungry (hence sat at the bar to drink and not take up a table) but that we wanted our newcomer to try the red, we were still chastised. When we got the bill, they charged us $24 for two a la carte enchiladas (just the two enchiladas, mind you, this did not include the drinks). I was astounded. The response was “you should have ordered a plate.” When I talked to the bartender he refused to change the price so I talked to the manager. The manager further belittled us and finally agreed to $12 but basically made us feel completely ashamed and unwelcome.

    We were embarrassed we had talked it up so much to our friend. Apparently, this is the impression they like to give people who have never been there before. I miss the Margaritas because we have not returned, but I do not miss the rude attitude of the staff and management.

    July 6, 2011 at 8:34 AM
  • Paula says:

    Having just eaten dinner at Maria’s this evening, I have somewhat different impressions than the previous posters’. Their margaritas taste more piquant than at other places because they don’t use “margarita mix,” they use fresh-squeezed lemon juice, so people who want a sweeter drink may be disappointed. I like the lemon juice because the flavors of the tequila and triple sec (or Cointreau) are clearly distinguishable, and it’s fun to try various margaritas and taste the difference that the tequilas make. Also, they have a huge selection of margaritas under $10, and the size is generous, so you get a far better drink for your money than at other restaurants in town.

    Re the tamales, I had some a while ago that were small and heavy on the masa — but they must have had an off night, as tonight’s were big and packed with filling. (My dinner consisted of a margarita, a side of guacamole with chips, a small salad, and 2 tamales, one pork and one vegetarian — and I left feeling stuffed!)

    As for AmyO’s experience, if you go to Maria’s during “off” hours, they serve only items from the bar menu because the full cooking staff isn’t there — so it was an imposition to ask them to serve you something from the regular menu, and I’m not terribly surprised that they charged you the full price.

    And for those posters who think Maria’s is a tourist restaurant — yes, there are plenty of tourists (they’re the ones who ask for conventional margarita mix), but it’s also hugely popular with locals, and there’s always a family party taking place somewhere in the restaurant.

    July 16, 2011 at 11:26 PM
  • AmyO says:

    Actually – it wasn’t that they said anything about not having the cooking staff or that it was off hours. They said several times – “you don’t want a plate?” – and we said no because we weren’t hungry since we had a late lunch. We were trying to show off their red to a friend. They would actually have a little less to do for just the enchiladas, so I don’t buy the reasoning. Some others around us were eating whole plates of food, so the kitchen was running. I guess it offended them that we wouldn’t be spending full plate price – but we did order a margarita each, it’s not as if we were freeloading to take up space.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:12 PM
  • AmyO says:

    Oh – and is $24 really the price for a plate of enchiladas? I mean, really, even the $12 for we paid for 2 a la carte enchiladas would be at the upper end of what one would expect it to cost for a dinner plate.

    July 21, 2011 at 10:10 AM

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