Culinary historians credit the advent of the modern Santa Fe fine dining scene to a painter who moved to Santa Fe shortly after World War II to join the burgeoning art community. Having to support herself and a young daughter, Rosalea Murphy turned to something else at which she excelled–the culinary arts. As with most rags to riches success stories, Rosalea did not immediately set the Santa Fe dining scene on its ear, but then this wasn’t the “City Different” now widely recognized as a tourist Mecca. Good things take time. Great things take longer.
When she first launched the restaurant she christened the Pink Adobe after the hue of its facade, her humble menu consisted solely of French onion soup and apple pie. As her business grew, so did her menu. She added “Pink Dobeburgers” to the menu and sold them for twenty-five cents each. Chicken enchiladas followed suit, the first of several New Mexican specialties she would add to the menu. Eventually her Pink Adobe became the first restaurant in Santa Fe to serve seafood, then a novelty in what was, in her words, “a lazy, sleepy town.”
By the 21st century, the ambitious menu featured variety unlike no other in Santa Fe with steak, seafood, New Mexican specialties, Creole and French dishes and much more. The Pink Adobe was the place to be seen, one of the city’s most popular dining destinations for both locals and tourists alike. Commenting once to Katharine Kagel of another iconic Santa Fe restaurant Cafe Pasqual, Rosalea described business conditions during a recession: “Well, we’re not turning away as many customers as we normally do.”
Across the courtyard from Santa Fe’s oldest family run restaurant, Rosalea launched the Dragon Room Lounge which remains one of Santa Fe’s most popular bars as well as being named one of the top 19 bars in the world by International Newsweek. The dimly lit Dragon Room is best seen in daylight when you can better appreciate the elm trees growing straight through the ceiling and the tangle of gnarled Medusa-like vines that creep and crawl along the walls and ceilings. You’ll also want to take in the colorful and eclectic art and nurturing fireplaces in the small dining rooms adjacent to the bar
Still going strong after more than six and a half decades, the Pink Adobe has experienced its share of changes over the years. One of the most noticeable was the mandated color change that belies the restaurant’s name. No longer pink, Rosalea’s baby is today a shade of sandstone. Roselea lobbied Santa Fe’s Historical Design Review board to restore the restaurant to its original pinkish hue, but the board steadfastly refused because “pink is not an earth tone” (the board was obviously comprised of “grey scale visually referenced persons” or persons who have never visited the Abiquiu area or paid rapt attention to a New Mexico sunset).
The biggest change since the Pink Adobe began serving Santa Fe in 1944 is that Rosalea is no longer with us. After she passed away in 2000 her family ran the restaurant until 2007, when the restaurant and bar were bought by Dave and Christie Garrett of the Garrett Hotel Group which also owned the Inn of Five Graces, one of Santa Fe’s most highly regarded hotels. Nay-sayers often it just wasn’t the same without Rosalea Murphy, the grand dame of one of Santa Fe’s most famous restaurants and progenitor of the city’s culinary revolution. That was true on many fronts. The changes (including tampering with a perfect apple pie recipe) made by the new owners weren’t well received and by November, 2010, the Pink Adobe’s door closed. On December 17th, Priscilla Hoback (daughter of Rosalea), her son Joe and his wife Jennifer reopened the restaurant. Now that it’s back in family hands, the continuity of excellence is back.
The Pink, as it is affectionally known by locals, is located in the center of the historic Barrio de Analco, across the street from the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States. It’s just two blocks south of the Plaza. The Barrio, a modest enclave dating back to the 1620s, is at the confluence of Old Santa Fe Trail and East DeVargas Street. “Analco” translates to “the other side of the water,” appropriate considering the area is south of the Santa Fe River. It is one of Santa Fe’s oldest neighborhoods.
The 400-year old building which houses the Pink Adobe predates the Dragon Room by about a century. In centuries past, it housed military barracks with 36-inch walls and six fireplaces. Diners can have the best of both worlds at the bar: either the Pink Adobe’s dinner menu or a unique and highly regarded bar menu. The Dragon Room also has several accommodating little dining rooms which are perfect for Sunday lunch gatherings. My first visit to the Pink Adobe and the Dragon Room since Rosalea’s family sold the restaurant was for such an occasion, my mom’s thirty-ninth birthday.
First and foremost, service was absolutely impeccable. Our waiter was accommodating and friendly, a perfect host determined to ensure mom’s special day was memorable and enjoyable. His knowledge of the menu was encyclopedic, but it was his sense of humor that was most endearing. Alas, service was THE highlight of our meal!
Most of us ordered the Steak Dunigan, for years the house specialty at the Pink Adobe. Named after one of Rosalea’s friends who asked for a steak smothered in green chile and mushrooms, it has been on the menu for at least four decades. It’s a charred New York Strip with mushrooms, green chile, sauteed vegetables and choice of potato. It used to be better. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad steak. It’s just not the steak that earned a reputation as one of Santa Fe’s best. Though prepared to my exacting specifications (medium, salt, pepper and garlic on both sides), it was uncharacteristically tough with more sinew and fat than a great steak should have. Everyone who had this steak had a similar experience. In a May, 2011 episode of the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” program, Santa Fe native turned chef Rahm Fama, host of the network’s Meat and Potatoes show, declared the Steak Dunigan “better than mine.” Surely he experienced the steak when it was prepared by Rosalea’s family.
Another dish for which the Pink Adobe has long been known–and based on its exorbitant price ($28 for dinner), obviously thinks very highly of–is Southern Fried Chicken. Southern fried chicken is a rarity in Santa Fe restaurants, but something we enjoyed on many a Sunday while living in Mississippi. As they say in the Deep South, “you have to go a far piece to get better fried chicken than the South.” The Pink Adobe doesn’t go far enough. To be clear, it’s several orders of magnitude better than anything you’ll find at the Colonel’s, but for the same price you could feed an army at KFC. Served with a hush puppy (almost as big s the fried chicken), mashed potatoes, gravy and coleslaw, we might have liked it much better at a more reasonable price.
Chicken Enchiladas were the very first New Mexican entree at the Pink Adobe. Served with sour cream cheese, green chile and a flour tortilla, it’s an entree long esteemed even by hard-liners. It, too, has seen better days. Looking at the picture above, it even looks dry, but not as dry as it tasted. Worse, the enchiladas are served with black beans, a favorite at Santa Fe based New Mexican restaurants, but something many native New Mexicans disdain with the foods we grew up eating. The chile was so unstimulating that not even my Phoenix transplanted sister found it piquant (she thinks bell peppers are too hot).
It wouldn’t be a visit to the Pink Adobe without a slice of Rosalea’s famous homemade French apple pie which many regard as the best you’ll ever eat. Over a million apple pies have been made at the Pink since 1944. Served piping hot and smothered in a delicious rum hard sauce and vanilla ice cream, its recipe has been shared for years in the Pink Adobe cookbook though we’ve never been able to make it quite as well. This French apple pie, along with Rosalea’s French onion soup, are what started The Pink on its ascension into greatness.
Even long-established restaurants with reputations bordering on legendary such as Pink Adobe have an occasional “off” day. The test of true greatness is whether such days are few and far in between. I’m inclined to believe we hit The Pink on a bad day and that we’ll be rewarded with a Rosalea quality meal during our next visit.
The Pink Adobe
406 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Steak Dunigan, Chicken Enchiladas, Fried Chicken, Rosalea’s Legendary French Apple Pie