National Geographic Traveler describes Santa Fe as “a hypercultural hybrid–equal parts Wild West and New Age, Native American and Hispanic, old money and old hippie”…a city “used to mixing things up and still creating an oddly seamless whole.”
To many people, Santa Fe is as much an escape as it is a destination. It is an adobe colored Mecca that preternaturally calls seekers to a spiritual and creative fulfillment they just don’t find elsewhere. Santa Fe draws them with an amalgam of spiritual tranquility, piñon-perfumed air and its accepting, non-judgmental culture. It holds them captive with its beauty and its cuisine. Santa Fe truly has an identity, substance and style all its own. One of the defining elements of contemporary “Santa Fe style” has been the howling coyote, an art phenomenon originated by woodcarver Alonzo Jimenez a couple of decades ago.
While the coyote is prevalent in contemporary Native American mythology and generally represents a cunning, treacherous scourge, to New Mexico artisans he has been a blessing, displayed on every conceivable medium. The howling coyote became so omnipresent that it became synonymous with Santa Fe style. In the culinary arts, Santa Fe style is most often associated with the Coyote Cafe whose logo is surprisingly not a howling coyote, but a flute-playing (ala Kokopelli) coyote about town with an unusually long, shaggy tail.
The Coyote Cafe, founded in 1987 and going strong more than two decades later, is considered by many to have created the template for modern Southwestern cuisine. At the Coyote Cafe–under the direction of the “High Priest of Southwestern Cuisine” Mark Miller–Southwestern cuisine evolved and reinvented itself time and again, all while staying true to its historical roots. The most recent reinvention is in the form of a new ownership group that includes Eric Distefano, one of the best chefs in the entire southwest. Distefano has been at the helm at Geronimo for many years and from all indications, is restoring the Coyote Cafe back to its halcyon days when it was widely considered one of Santa Fe’s premier dining destinations.
My favorite Coyote Cafe restaurant family member is the Rooftop Cantina where seasonal open-air dining between April and late October is so quintessentially Santa Fe. The atmosphere is casual and the views of Santa Fe’s bustling downtown are ever so cosmopolitan. Thematically, the Rooftop Cantina has the taste and feel of Old Mexico and indeed, it does serve up eclectic Mexican cuisine as good as you’ll have it anywhere. An ever-evolving menu means you’ll never get bored. Boredom, in fact, may be the last word you’d ever associate with the Coyote Rooftop Cantina. His is one happening joint that has stood the ravages of time and competition because it’s been a pace setter.
The Rooftop Cantina’s fire-roasted salsa (pictured above) and its subtle citrus influence has addictive, capsaicin endowed properties and is my favorite restaurant salsa in New Mexico even though many other salsas are more piquant. A purchase of Miller’s The Great Salsa Book is in order if you don’t already have a copy.
Among the many wonderful entrees (albeit found on the appetizers section of the menu), none may be as sublime as the quesadilla de carnitas de pato (duck quesadillas) crafted with roasted poblano chiles, Monterrey cheese and a Tequila Habañero barbecue sauce. The melding of distinctive flavors and textures is worthy of Santa Fe style. These quesadillas are not only incomparably delicious, they decorate your plate. The duck quesadillas are accompanied by something called Mexican coleslaw. Google “Mexican coleslaw” and the popular search engine will return pages of results, alas not including Mark Miller’s recipe. After quickly consuming the portion that came with the quesadillas, we ordered a second portion “for dessert” not only because the taste captivated us, but so we could “deconstruct” the coleslaw and figure out how to duplicate it at home. The Cantina’s Mexican coleslaw starts with a bed of finely shredded cabbage (both green and red). It includes fresh mangoes and pineapples along with some of their residual juices, perhaps some vinegar and oil and Tequila Habañero dressing to give it a piquant bite. It is certainly among the best coleslaw we’ve had anywhere.
Also exceptional are the tacos al Pastor, spit-roasted, thinly shredded pork marinated and served with small pineapple chunks wrapped in golden corn tortillas. You can order tacos al Pastor at a hundred different Mexican restaurants and you’ll get a hundred different versions of street food snack most often defined as just “pork tacos.” The Rooftop Cantina’s tacos al Pastor are among the best we’ve had everywhere and it’s not solely because of the pineapple’s citrusy contrast to the wonderfully smoky pork. The tacos are served with tomatillo avocado and tomatillo arbol salsa, neither of which are necessary to enhance the tacos, but which are excellent with the Cantina’s chips. The tacos al Pastor are served with Frijoles Charros, a bowl of pinto beans imbued with smoky sausage, fresh tomatoes, red onions and plenty of cilantro. Again, you can find Frijoles Charros at many Mexican restaurants but none are quite as good as at the Rooftop Cantina. For one thing, the beans are cooked to perfection (it’s been our experience almost everywhere that the beans are drastically undercooked).
More than many Mexican restaurants, the Rooftop Cantina incorporates citrus ingredients in entrees containing succulent grilled meats. Scan the menu and you’ll quickly note several items in which pineapple and (or) mango is a prominent ingredient. The marriage of tangy citrusy fruit and savory meats is one made in culinary heaven. Another example, found in the tortas section of the menu, is the mango avocado chicken sandwich which features grilled chipotle chicken with tomato, avocado, lettuce and a mango-banana salsa. The salsa isn’t quite as sweet as it sounds, maybe because any cloying flavors are offset quite well by the savoriness of other ingredients.
Perhaps the most popular sandwich on the menu is the La Cubana Sandwich, Mark Miller’s take on the popular Cuban sandwich. This sandwich is constructed with roasted pork loin and ham, guacamole, chipotle sauce and a black bean spread, a unique and delicious interpretation of the trendy sandwich seemingly found at every sandwich shop.
If your tastes lean more toward pure carnivorism, the Costilla Estilo Yucatan (Yucatan style ribs) may be calling you. Meaty ribs are spiced with achiote (a red paste made from the seeds of the annatto tree and used as a seasoning which also gives food a deep red color) topped with a fiery Habanero BBQ Sauce. These incendiary ribs are not quite too hot to handle, but you just might experience sheer delicious agony.
On the adobe wall just before the final four steps leading to the Cantina is a metal sculpture depicting coyotes frolicking boisterously at a Cantina similar to a fight scene on a Western movie. One coyote is swinging from a chandelier, there’s a comely coquette coyote on the bar and two members of the Canis Latrans family are ready to come to blows. While the restaurant is never quite this animated, it does radiate fun and is one of the very best restaurants in Santa Fe.
Coyote’s Rooftop Grill
132 West Water St.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 April 2007
# OF VISITS: 14
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Duck Quesadillas, Cuban Sandwich, Tacos Al Pastor, Mexican Coleslaw