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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 28 October 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
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