Fittingly for a restaurant whose “mascot” is a rotund, sombrero-wearing bee with a smile on his face and maracas in each hand, almost every review you’ll find of the Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill in Santa Fe since it launched in 2004 employed a clever bee-related play on words to describe it. “What’s all the buzz about in Santa Fe?” “This new “beestro” offers a refreshing twist on fast food.” The Bumble Bee opened to such tremendous acclaim that it quickly expanded to two Santa Fe locations and served Albuquerque diners for six years (2005 through 2011) with the same casual dining experiences heretofore available only to residents of the state’s capital. Those experiences resulted in readers of the Santa Fe Reporter naming it the “best new restaurant in Santa Fe” two consecutive years against formidable competition.
Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill is the brainchild of Bob and BJ Weil. Bob, an avuncular septuagenarian, has been a peripatetic presence at the restaurant since it launched, seemingly serving simultaneously as greeter, cashier, waiter and busboy, but mostly as the restaurant’s genial ambassador. If he’s at the restaurant on the day of your visit, you can expect him to stop by your table to make sure you’re enjoying your food and dining experience. Your experience is of Mexican Baja style cuisine, characterized by uncompromisingly fresh ingredients melded together in gustatory exciting ways then apportioned generously to ensure no diner ever leaves hungry. Seafood ingredients abound in “just caught” freshness, no easy feat in landlocked New Mexico. Meats and poultry are char-grilled to exacting temperatures that ensure each bite is succulent and juicy. Bumble Bee’s salsas will awaken your taste buds with just enough bite to complement your entrees without dominating them.
One of the restaurant’s instant draws was a complimentary salsa bar which included a quadrumvirate of sensational salsas. To keep prices low, Bumble Bee’s discontinued the free salsa bar, offering salsas and chips as a low cost option. It’s an option savvy diners opt for. The fire roasted salsa has a distinctive smoky flavor and barely registers on any piquancy scale. Ditto for the pico de gallo. In Spanish, pico de gallo means “rooster’s bite,” but there isn’t much bite in this condiment of chopped tomato, fresh cilantro, onion and lime juice. Diners craving piquancy in their salsa can get it from Bumble Bee’s jalapeno-laced tomatillo salsa which will get your attention. Flame eaters will opt for the habanero salsa though by most standards, it’s fairly tame compared to some habanero based salsas in the Land of Enchantment. The salsa bar also includes cilantro and chopped onion.
The menu touts “ordering as easy as uno, dos, tres…(1) choose your meat: chicken fish, shrimp, steak or lamb; (2) choose your meal (tacos or burritos, etc.); and (3) It’s fresh and healthy – Enjoy!.” Easier said than done. The menu is replete with so many terrific choices that you’ll be challenged to order quickly. Of course, “uno, dos, tres” can also represent the number of tacos you want to eat. You’ll find that un taco certainly isn’t enough.
If tacos and burritos don’t thrill you enough, the menu includes a bevy of treasures sure to please the discerning diner. The menu section entitled “Favorites” includes a trout filet, quesadilla, nachos and a beans and rice bowl. Another section of the menu called “El Pollo” features chicken entrees, each marinated overnight in a chile rub and roasted over an open flame rotisserie. There are several items designed with vegetarians in mind and the entire menu is MSG and lard free. Salads are also available.
Surprises abound at Bumble Bee’s. During two visits, the intended object of my appetite were fish tacos, however, my eyes and taste buds wandered toward the specials of the day, neither of which disappointed. New additions (as of 2009) include aguas frescas (horchata and sandia) and ceviche. The ceviche is served in a goblet and unlike most ceviche, features large, whole shrimp, onion, cilantro, tomato and a slaw of jicama and cabbage.
“Baja style tacos” start off with fresh, soft corn tortillas. Each taco’s bounty is so plentiful that it takes three tortillas to envelop and retain its ingredients so they’re not spilling all over your clothing. Fish (char-grilled wild Pacific mahi-mahi) and shrimp (char-grilled farm-raised) tacos are made with sliced avocado, cabbage, pico de gallo and Bumble Bee’s secret non-dairy sauce. The fish tacos are easily among the very best I’ve ever had in New Mexico, and that’s not just an indictment of other restaurants in the Land of Enchantment which endeavor to serve them.
The char-grilled wild Pacific mahi-mahi is nestled in three, warm, steamy corn tortillas where fabulous fish shares accommodations with a heaping slice of avocado, shredded cabbage and Bumblebee’s “special sauce.” The special sauce is nothing like McDonald’s rendition. It is creamy, tart, sweet and absolutely delicious, the perfect flavor complement to the mahi mahi. I dare say the sauce is the closest I’ve experienced to the sauce served with fish tacos in San Diego, perhaps the nation’s most prolific consumer of fish tacos.
Meat (char-grilled specialty spiced “fajita” skirt steak, marinated chicken breast and even slow-simmered lamb) tacos are topped with chopped onion, cilantro and a smoky roasted salsa. If all these delicious offerings challenge you to order just the right one, fret not because they’re all wonderful. Better still, create your own “chef’s sampler” which would include one of each–fish, shrimp, beef and chicken. This platter should come with black or pinto beans (according to the menu, grown in high-mountain valleys) prepared with onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices; cilantro-lime rice; homemade corn chips and freshly prepared salsa from the fabulous complementary salsa bar.
The smoky roasted salsa makes its presence felt on the burrito grande, a burrito encasing grilled peppers and onions, melted Jack and Cheddar cheese, beans, rice and sour cream. This is a two-fisted, five-napkin burrito tipping the scales at nearly a full pound. It is a thing of beauty to behold and a pleasure to consume. Of comparable pulchritude is one of the aforementioned daily specials called tostada de pollo rostiso, a roasted chicken tostada with a treasure trove of ingredients including roasted chicken, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), pico de gallo and goat cheese. This special featured two twin tostados each formidably stacked with ingredients and bursting with flavor. The pepitas are lightly roasted and delicious, an excellent addition to any Mexican inspired entree.
Bumble Bee’s daily special entrees often include goat cheese, a pungent and tangy cheese that is an excellent alternative to the gloppy Cheddar cheese often used in New Mexican style burritos. The goat cheese and chicken burrito on a whole wheat or white tortilla is an inventive alternative good enough to hopefully make the daily menu. This burrito is engorged with moist, fresh chicken, diced onion, chopped tomatoes, avocado and of course, a tasty smear of warm goat cheese.
Just as owner Bob Weil discerned a niche opportunity for healthy Mexican food, in 2011 he discerned the national premium hamburger craze would go over well in New Mexico, too. Early indications are that his gamble will pay off. Rather than launch his burger concept in a new location, Weil added the premium burger menu concept to the Cerillos rendition of his restaurant. Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill and Burgers also offers hot dogs (National Hebrew all-beef), shakes, malts, French fries, onion rings, bee-stings (battered, sliced jalapeños and onions), grilled cheese sandwich and a bee-L.T.
Inspired by a hot dog graze in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011 the innovative entrepreneur introduced Sonoran hot dogs to his restaurant In Tucson, more than one-hundred vendors ply the Sonoran-style hot dog trade while no restaurant serves them in Santa Fe. Throughout Tucson, you’ll find a surprising number of inventive variations on the Sonoran hot dog. Where none deviate is in wrapping bacon barbershop pole style around a wiener then griddling or grilling it until the bacon has practically caramelized into the wiener. A phalanx of garnishes and toppings are then stuffed into a bolillo style Mexican bread that resembles a hot dog bun that hasn’t been completely split length-wise.
The Bumble Bee interpretation of the Sonoran Hot dog bears some resemblance to the iconic hot dogs served at Tucson’s El Guero Canelo with the most notable exception being the bolillo bread. At El Guero Canelo, the bolillo is pillowy soft, but still formidable enough to hold in the sundry ingredients. Bumble Bee’s bolillo (spelled “Boleo” on the menu) is somewhat reminiscent of pretzel bread in that it’s chewy and firm. Within the “boleo” bread is a Hebrew National hot dog (Bob jokes that the hot dog is half Jewish because of the kosher style hot dog) wrapped in bacon, fresh chopped onions and pico de gallo smothered in pinto beans and Jack and Cheddar cheese. It’s garnished with mustard, mayo and sliced, pickled jalapeños.
In keeping with its inventive menu, Bumble Bee’s ambiance practically shouts colorful and fun. Formica counters and loud colors dominate. Bumble Bee piñatas are suspended from high, industrial looking ceilings with exposed ductwork while ceramic masks adorn the wall immediately above the salsa bar. Seating is comfortable, albeit in fairly close proximity to other diners.
The original Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill is the only downtown Santa Fe sit-down restaurant with drive-through service.
Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill
301 Jefferson Street
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 27 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Fish Tacos; Shrimp Tacos, Goat Cheese and Chicken Burrito, Ceviche, Salsa and Chips, Sonoran Hot Dog