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