Black Bird Saloon – Los Cerrillos, New Mexico
On a journey by train to San Francisco, New Mexico’s legendary award-winning author Tony Hillerman shared an observation car with businessmen from the East. As the spectacular Zuni Buttes, majestic Mount Taylor, breathtaking mesas and skies resplendent with monsoon thunderclouds passed in review, his heart was lifted and his worries dissipated. He then overheard one of the Easterners remark to the other, “My God, why would anybody live out here?” Hillerman’s immediate (though unspoken) thought was, “My God, why wouldn’t everyone want to live out here?”
As Hillerman’s experience clearly illustrates, one person’s “middle of nowhere” is another person’s idyllic paradise. Similarly, what some consider “nothing to do here” is the pace of life others spend their life pursuing. It’s a dichotomy of lifestyles not delineated by age or wealth, but by attitude and maturity. In my twenties, my perspective of Los Cerrillos, New Mexico would have been similar to that of the Easterners. Thirty years later, I echo Hillerman’s sentiment. It dawned on me as I lounged under the shady porch in front of the Black Bird Saloon, my debonair dachshund The Dude by my side, that there was nowhere on God’s beautiful Earth I’d rather be at that moment in time.
In its halcyon days (1880 – 1900), Los Cerrillos was a rowdy, rollicking place with four hotels, twenty-one saloons, five brothels, several dance halls and shops catering to as many as 3,000 prospectors and miners who extracted gold, silver, lead, manganese, copper and turquoise from the crusty depths of the San Pedro Mountains and the Cerillos hills backdropping the town. By the turn of the twentieth century–fewer than twenty years after the hills had yielded nearly two-million dollars in turquoise–the once flourishing boom town had nearly faded into memory. Today, Los Cerillos is officially a “ghost town” (defined by Merriam-Webster as “a once-flourishing town wholly or nearly deserted usually as a result of the exhaustion of some natural resource.)” “
In comparison to the bustle and pandemonium of its thriving wild west past, the unusually busy (a relative term) Saturday in which I visited was an exemplar of repose and quietude. A crowd of about twenty milled about at a small park where several trees were being planted and locals were ogling the treats at a two-table bake sale. Traffic–in equal measure of the pedestrian and vehicular variety–waved as they passed by on the washboard paved street in front of the Black Bird Saloon. It was very much reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s America of a bygone age when the pace of life was slower and neighbors were friendlier.
So were merchants, inn-keepers and saloon owners. Patrick Torres, genial proprietor of the Black Bird Saloon, would have fit in nicely in Norman Rockwell’s America. In between greeting guests and attending to their orders, he wandered out to the porch where we engaged in small-town discourse: the weather, local activities, who’s who in town. Local pride was very much in evidence. Patrick is originally from Gallup, but spent much of his working life toiling in Santa Fe. When he grew tired of the rat race, he did what most of us don’t have the smarts and gumption to do. He decided to slow down and enjoy life. He purchased the circa 1885 structure which he and his lovely bride Kelly would transform into the Black Bird Saloon.
Patrick and Kelly promised the Montoya family who had owned the building for eighty years that they would be respectful of its history and preserve its architectural appearance. Job well done! As you approach the saloon, you’re walking into the past, toward a way of life that bespeaks of yesteryear—not the yesteryear of rowdy roustabouts, but a yesteryear of neighbors who care about one another. Patrick greeted all passers-by by name, exchanging familial news and amiable wishes. It made me wistful for the days I spent in Cuchilla (a “suburb” of Peñasco) with my grandmother.
The Cerrillos environs and the edifice which now houses the Black Bird Saloon have appeared in a number of movies including The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca , Young Guns, Young Guns II, and Vampires. Vampires??? It certainly doesn’t take much to transform the Saloon into a credible old west movie backdrop. The next time Hollywood films in the area, the cast and crew will have a great venue in which to unwind and enjoy surprisingly good and inventive cuisine prepared by Kelly Torres. In the nearly thirteen months since the Saloon’s launch (13 April 2017), she’s continued to refine the menu. Popular items remain. Those which don’t move as quickly are replaced. Locally sourced produce and meats are sourced locally to the extent possible.
The menu, by way of the Corvids (members of the biological family Corvidae which include crows, ravens, magpies, jays, and other black birds) is as fun to read as it is exciting to contemplate all the deliciousness it promises. Instead of the heading “Breakfast,” you’ll be ordering your wake-up grub from the “Ravens Wake-Up” Call section of the menu. “Saloon Snacks & Salads” constitute the appetizers. Main entrees reside on the “Bonanza” section of the menu while “Saddle Bag Sides” offer a phalanx of French fry options unlike any you’ve seen. Menu items are named for old west landmarks and personalities (Black Jack Ketchum anyone?).
29 April 2018: Visitors to the Black Bird Saloon who order the Camp Fire Folk Lore (grilled little elk and bison smokies, shishito peppers with smoked sea salt and Dijon mustard) may just tell a few tales of their own about this terrific starter. Perhaps around a campfire of their own, they’ll be sharing their own hommage to the little elk and bison smokies, sourced from a very reliable vendor in South Dakota. Dip or dunk them in the Dijon mustard or enjoy them sans condiments. You’ll love them either way. Folk lore will spread about Patrick and Kelly planting a few shishitos in their backyard and ending up with a treasure trove of these wonderful peppers with the aroma of roasted green chile and the piquancy of a bell pepper. Kelly drizzles them in olive oil and adds a little sea salt. They’re terrific.
29 April 2018: The “Bonanza” section of the menu lists a number of burger and sandwich options, including a garden of the gods (daily vegetarian) option. Adventurous diners need not have a beef-based burger. Not when the Saloon offers such enticing options as the Game Trail Burger (North American elk, Mizuna greens, blueberry mustard on a kaiser roll). The menu had me at blueberry mustard, a condiment with sweet and spicy notes. It’s so good you’ll want it on a slice or four of toast. Mizuna greens also have a distinct flavor profile. Described by Serious Eats as “peppery like arugula and slightly bitter like frisee, yet it’s milder and sweeter than either of the more commonly found salad greens,” it’s an eye-opener. So is the North American elk, leaner and sweeter than beef. Elk isn’t gamey in the least. It’s a terrific option, one more restaurants should brave to offer.
4 May 2018: Having been captivated by the tranquil village of Cerrillos and its superlative saloon, I couldn’t wait to return if only to find out if my initial impressions would be lasting ones. They were! At the table at which The Dude and I had previously sat, a young man and his elderly primo were regaling passers-by and guests with guitar, mandolin and accordion music, their deft fingers producing a beautiful interplay of soothing melodies that perfectly fit the time and place. Two other guests and their own four-legged child invited us to join them at their table, a great alternative to occupying two stools around a wooden barrel. We enjoyed their company immensely, sharing our mutual bounties. Patrick told us we missed by a couple of days the local “donkey society” parading their donkeys around town. It’s a sight we hope to see soon.
In the 1880s, businessmen flocked to Cerrillos in pursuit of opportunities to line their pockets. Among them were two marketeers by the names of Arnold and Stinson. The terrific anthology Turquoise and Six Guns: The Story of Cerrillos, New Mexico describes their operation thusly: “To nourish the residents after a hard day in the mines, Arnold & Stinson’s Market unabashedly announced that “Our fresh choice meats and game in season act on the digestive organs in a manner most satisfactory, and we are warranted, if cooked as directed, to relieve that tired feeling. There are hundreds of people who testify in glowing terms as to their superfine quality.”
The Black Bird Saloon’s menu honors the pioneering marketeers with a starter named in their honor. The aforementioned appetizer for two could certainly have been written about the Arnold & Stinson’s Market Place starter. Though we can’t testify as to the “most satisfactory manner” in which the market plate acted upon our digestive organs, we can certainly attest to the freshness and deliciousness of the game meats (buffalo summer sausage and cotto salami) and gourmet cheeses (Irish whiskey Cheddar and horseradish-chive Havarti) served with Kelly’s housemade blueberry mustard and grilled bread. This was a superb starter, each item complementing the other very nicely. Our favorites were the horseradish-chive Havarti produced in Wisconsin. Though the chives were overpowered by the fiery horseradish, the creaminess of the Havarti was a beautiful counterbalance. The buffalo summer sausage was also quite rich and delicious, pairing surprisingly well with the blueberry mustard.
4 May 2018: Not that long ago, an inquiry by BOTVOLR about grilled cheese sandwiches launched an avalanche of comments with several respondents providing input as to where the Duke City’s best can be found. It inspired my own search for the best grilled cheese in New Mexico. My short list will certainly include the Black Bird Saloon’s Smelter Grilled Cheese (smoked trout, Irish whiskey Cheddar, Mascarpone, apple and onion jam on rustic bread). Read that list of ingredients again. Like you, we thought the smoked trout would probably be the most prominent flavor. Instead, all ingredients melded together in such perfect harmony that while each component was discernible, none dominated. This is an outstanding grilled cheese sandwich. Now, will BOTVOLR make the pleasant trek to Cerrillos to try one?
4 May 2018: You never quite know what you’re going to get when you order a barbecue pork sandwich. More often than not, it’s chopped pork or maybe pulled pork slathered in sauce and in some parts of the country, topped with a tangy coleslaw. At the Black Bird Saloon, the barbecue pork sandwich, a special of the day, is so much more. Instead of chopped or pulled pork, a half-inch thick grilled pork cutlet drapes over a kaiser roll. Lacquered on lightly is a sweet sauce. Between the kaiser buns, you’ll also find a mix of greens (arugula was prevalent), fresh tomatoes and red onions, not a coleslaw. It’s a very good sandwich wholly unlike most barbecue sandwiches we’ve had.
4 May 2018: On the “Saddle Bag Sides” section of the menu, we were drawn to the simple sweet pickles, a jar brimming with impossibly thinly sliced cucumbers prepared in a sweet brine (vinegar, sugar, water, and spices). With each stab of our forks, we extricated five or more of these paper-thin gems. Unlike other sweet pickles we’ve had, there were no cloves discernible in the flavor notes (a plus). These sweet pickles are reminiscent of the Thai cucumber salads typically served with satay though not quite as sweet.
4 May 2018: The Black Bird Saloon doesn’t offer many desserts, but if the pie in a jar is any indication, you should order dessert up front so the saloon doesn’t run out before you get yours. Neither Patrick nor Kelly are pastry bakers, but a neighbor in Cerrillos most assuredly is. That neighbor prepares all the Saloon’s desserts. Her specialty is pie in a jar, but it’s not just one dessert. She can prepare virtually every conventional pie and serve it in a jar. Patrick explained she’s prepared key lime pie in a jar, peanut butter pie in a jar and the most popular, the chocolate pie in a jar. A delicate Graham cracker crust lines the bottom of the jar while Graham cracker crumbs top the rich, delicious ganache.
Cerrillos isn’t nearly as heavily trafficked as Madrid, its neighbor on the Turquoise Trail. Nor is it as bustling and boisterous. It’s a little piece of heaven for those of us who crave a return to simple solitude and tranquil settings. The Black Bird Saloon fits right in.
Black Bird Saloon
28 Main Street
Cerillos, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 4 May 2018
1st VISIT: 29 April 2018
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Camp Fire Folk Lore, Game Trail Burger,