“A mythical bird that never dies, the Phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space.
It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it.
The Phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration.”
– Feng Shui Master Lam Kam Shuen, The Feng Shui Handbook
It’s only appropriate that a cozy little restaurant named Cafe Phenix would be part and parcel of a neighborhood revitalization effort being spearheaded by a close-knit community of artists. Much like the advent of Soho, a New York City neighborhood regenerated by a community of Bohemian artists and activists, Santa Fe’s “Triangle District” is emerging as a destination for dining and a sense of community.
Geographically defined as the triangle formed by St. Francis Drive, St Michael’s Drive and Cerrillos Road, the Triangle District is the antithesis of Santa Fe style and its Anasazi inspired adobe facade. In fact the Triangle District seems to be an architectural hodgepodge of neo-industrial warehouse structures, studios, cafes and galleries. It does not fit the stereotypical Santa Fe template that seems to preternaturally draw so many seekers to “The City Different.”
Tragically, architectural standards and city ordinances threaten to make Santa Fe a model of adobe-hued homogeneity. It’s khaki-colored uniformity everywhere you turn, a true “City Same.” That’s why little pockets or architectural resistance are such a draw to those of us who don’t necessarily subscribe to the type of boring sameness one might call the Wal-Martization of a neighborhood. That’s why we cherish neighborhoods like the Triangle District.
That’s also why we seek out and cherish restaurants that dare to be different–restaurants which don’t accede to the boring template of the modern American chains and their LED-spangled lighting; saccharine wait schtick; flamboyant, over-the-top ambience and food wholly devoid of personality and flavor but profuse in portion size.
Though we may toil in the corporate world for our daily bread, restaurants such as Cafe Phenix bring out the Bohemian soul within us. They nourish our artistic afflatus while giving sustenance to our unexpressed creative core. They provide momentary respite, a temporary escape and most importantly, give us a sense of community in a cold and impersonal world polarized by politics and greed.
Community is what the Cafe Phenix aspires to build. Its mission is to have a community cafe that “offers amazing food, the best espresso and coffee in town, and a large selection of loose leaf tea with the goal of offering everyone a chance to enjoy healthy, great tasting food and drinks at a reasonable price.
That sense of community was certainly not lost on Julia Lapis Blakeslee, a faithful reader of this blog, who excitedly told me about her experiences at “a pretty funky place” with a “really homey atmosphere” in which “the couple that owns the place makes you feel quite welcome.” She then proceeded to regale me in with mouth-watering descriptions of peasant-style savory buckwheat crepes, some of the best coffee she’s ever had and a “revelation in eggs,” scrambled eggs the type of which she imagined New York Times’ columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman would prepare.
Julia’s sense of community was heightened by the fact that the Phenix Cafe offers as an occasional special, Russian borscht reminiscent of what she grew up eating. Having grown up with a Russian mother and grandmother serving borscht at most meals, she was impressed with the restaurant’s rendition and authenticity.
That authenticity is credited to co-owner Yevgeniya “Jane” Gozenpud, who left the mother country of Russia at age six and migrated to Chicago where her family remains to this day. Jane’s husband Joshua Drummond, a Cordon Bleu trained chef, is originally from Las Cruces. Together they have transformed what was once an old bike repair shop into a charming little cafe that savvy diners have taken notice of.
Cafe Phenix didn’t escape the notice of the New York Times which, in a “Where to eat in Santa Fe” segment had this to say: “a family-owned operation specializing in crepes and galettes not only has the best breakfast dish in town — galettes with eggs, cheese and roast green chile — but the best coffee.” Interestingly, the New York Times, who’s been publishing “All The News That’s Fit To Print” since 1851, scooped local periodicals which, as of this writing, have not reviewed Cafe Phenix.
You’ll quickly get the feeling that to the locals who have discovered it, an endorsement from the New York Times means far less than the fact that Cafe Phenix prides itself in using fresh, organic ingredients purchased locally whenever possible. A restaurant with a true social conscience, Cafe Phenix enthusiastically supports Buy Local, Farm to Restaurant, Shop Santa Fe, sustainability, living wage, individuality, spontaneity and the green movement. How can you not love that? Further, everything is made to order with the highest attention to presentation and flavor and a goal of having something for everyone–vegans, vegetarians and those who cannot or don’t wish to eat gluten.
Intent on nurturing a sense of community–its operating motto is “whatever your talent or flavor is, you’ll always find a home at Cafe Phenix”–the cafe invites local artists, musicians and filmmakers to showcase their work at no cost. Artists can participate with, and get recognition from, each other and the wider Santa Fe community. To that end, the cafe will be hosting events to showcase local talent. Rotating monthly art exhibits festoon the cafe’s walls. This is creativity fostering creativity, community fostering community.
The concept of “made to order” is taken to heart at Phenix Cafe where very limited kitchen space makes it impossible for Chef Drummond to mass-produce large quantities of food. That just means he pays more attention to each individual order. It also means that while you’re waiting for your food, you can luxuriate in the glorious bouquet (a medley of fragrance, aroma and aftertaste) of hot, fresh and utterly delicious coffee. Julia, who is very picky about coffee, told me the cafe serves some of the best coffee she’s ever had. For her that’s saying a lot.
The coffee menu features Espresso, Macchiato, Latte, Mocha, Cappuccino, Cafe Au Lait, Organic Chai and a house specialty called “The Ultimate,” three shots of Espresso, Half and Half and sweetened, condensed milk. You might think you’re in Seattle, not Santa Fe as the fragrance of coffee envelops you. It’s amazing coffee, as smooth and full-flavored as any coffee made by any barista anywhere. The Ultimate lives up to its name though it’s not for the faint of heart. If you need to sweeten it, little Russian treasure boxes on every table contain all your favorite artificial sweeteners—or you can ask for agave, a natural sweetener.
Printed menus showcase a variety of galettes and crepes, not the “usual suspects” you see at every French restaurant. Chef Drummond treats the galette (essentially a crepe with savory components) and crepe as a veritable canvas for his culinary creativity. Both crepes and galettes are available in buckwheat, wheat, quinoa or vegan quinoa. Don’t forget to check out the specials of the day, nattily scrawled on a blue slate board. It’s where you’ll find borscht when it’s offered.
One special of the day of our inaugural visit was a ham and brie galette (ham, brie and sauteed apples served with maple syrup), a fabulous marriage of sweet, tangy and savory flavors. The ingredients go so well together, you’ll be amazed–a concordant melding of salty ham cut into little cubes, apples cut even smaller and with a delicate tanginess, real maple syrup and a light, slightly sweet galette enveloping this delightful, perfect-for-breakfast entree.
The crepe de resistance, for me, however, is La Tetue (thick cut bacon, chevre (goat cheese), caramelized red onion, leek and garlic, slightly sauteed tomatoes and fresh basil), a savory galette on the daily menu. Chef Drummond’s mastery of balanced flavors is in evidence here as no one ingredient dominates the taste profile. Instead, pedantic palates will be able to discern each and every flavor component and they’re all perfectly prepared. The chevre has a sharp, creamy flavor; the vegetables have the zip of freshness and the bacon is smoky and crispy.
The crepe menu is replete with the types of luscious indulgences with which we should all treat ourselves once in a while–like every time we visit Cafe Phenix. The sweet and delicate Nutella Crepe was showcased in “100+ Things To Eat Before You Die,” a popular list which has been making the rounds throughout the blogosphere for years. The cafe one-ups the basic nutella crepe by offering one with bananas and cream cheese. It’s a little piece of heaven on earth, a sweet work of art sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.
At the other end of the sweetness spectrum is a blood orange Crepe Suzette, another special of the day we fortuned upon. Blood oranges are simultaneously sweet and tart as if an orange was crossed with a grapefruit. Neither the sweet nor the tart flavor dominates; it’s literally the best of both, a balance of flavors. Blood oranges are crimson red, as if injected with the red ink my English teacher used on my writing assignments. You can only imagine how lively and flavorful this crepe is. Bursts of flavor will make your mouth very happy.
There are many things about Cafe Phenix that will make you happy and it’s not limited to the terrific food. Jane and her wait staff are sincerely happy and grateful to have you as their guests and they feed you like it. This is an undiscovered Santa Fe gem that won’t be a secret for much longer.
1414 Second Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 February 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Blood Orange Crepe Suzette; La Tetue; Banana, Cream Cheese and Nutella Crepe; Ham and Brie Galette