La Boca – Santa Fe, New Mexico
In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” George Costanza declared food and sex to be his two passions, reasoning that “it’s only natural to combine them.” Jerry’s retort, “Natural? Sex is about love between a man and a woman, not a man and a sandwich.”
George Costanza may actually have gotten it right! The mouth is actually considered an erogenous zone, an area of the body with heightened sensitivity, the stimulation of which may result in a sexual response.
While most people don’t get sexually stimulated by eating, the mouth does host very sensitive taste receptors, including 10,000 taste buds on the tongue. Perhaps that’s why so many people derive so much pleasure from the act of eating.
It may have been with this realization that chef and proprietor James Campbell Caruso named his restaurant venture “La Boca,” which translates from Spanish to “the mouth.” La Boca launched in the summer of 2006.
Formerly executive chef at El Farol, Caruso is renown for melding Spanish and Mediterranean cuisines to create a unique cuisine that’s both traditional and contemporary. It’s also extraordinary in its ability to tantalize the mouth with inimitable taste sensations.
La Boca specializes in tapas, the name for a wide variety of appetizers in Spanish cuisine. Spaniards eat tapas as a cocktail between meals. Dinner is usually served between 8PM and 10PM and lunch between 2AM and 3AM. Having been raised in the Basque region (between the French and Spanish border), Caruso certainly understands the culture and significance of tapas.
Tapas restaurants have hit the United Kingdom and the United States by storm, but unlike in Spain, tapas may constitute a meal in and of themselves. At Spanish restaurants, diners usually order many different small tapas, combining them for a full meal.
Since launching, La Boca has received extensive critical acclaim, including rave reviews from one of the most beautiful mouths in the world (with more teeth than an Osmond)–that of Giada Delaurentis, the pulchritudinous Food Network luminary. Delaurentis visited Santa Fe in November, 2006 for the taping of her television series Giada’s Weekend Getaway.
Giada explained that though reservations are sometimes hard to come by, you can usually find a seat at the bar where the chef himself will craft a tapa to suit your taste. A table can more easily be found during lunch hour on Saturday, especially if you’re there when the restaurant opens.
A word of warning about the tables, however–they’re small…very small. You’ll wonder how such tiny tables can accommodate the cavalcade of small plates destined your way. Fortunately, the kitchen prepares each tapa to order and staggers their delivery so you aren’t too uncomfortably cramped in trying to make room.
Insofar as ambience, it might best be described as minimalist. A sole framed painting of a restaurant called “La Boca Linda” hangs by the entrance. That seems to constitute the restaurant’s non-edible art. The floors are red brick. A black board over the bar lists the specials of the day.
During our inaugural visit, two tin buckets were suspended from the ceiling beams, but they weren’t there for esthetics; it turns out they’re functional. The roof had a small leak exacerbated by the uncommonly wet winter.
Spanish and Mediterranean influences are apparent on the tapas menu which features twenty or so tapas. It will be a challenge to narrow your choices to the six or so that constitute a hardy meal, but one that won’t leave you uncomfortably full. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll attempt to describe the tapas of which we’ve partaken during our visits. Please bear in mind that the menu changes frequently and some, perhaps many, of these tapas may not be available when you visit.
You might want to take Giada’s cue and order the grilled asparagus with black olive salsa and Regianno (a hard, granular parmesan cheese). Lightly grilled, the asparagus are crisp to the bite, but tender and delicious. The cheese and black olive salsa remove any trace of bitterness sometimes found in this folic acid and vitamin enriched vegetable.
Giada didn’t try the chorizo de la rioja simmered in sherry with golden raisins, but we did and boy, are we ever happy about that. The chorizo is sliced diagonally and is seasoned with Spanish paprika which is said to give Spanish chorizo its characteristic flavor. The sherry reduction and sweet golden raisins added a sweet taste to the smokiness of an excellent chorizo.
Perhaps even better than the chorizo is a pork fennel sausage with pomegranate and piment d’espelette (a long red pepper cultivated in the Basque region of France which imbues dishes with a mildly piquant, fruity finish). Wow! This tapa has it all–the tart sweetness of the pomegranate, the agreeably aromatic fragrance of fennel and the coarse savory deliciousness of the sausage.
In Spain, the fried egg is so beloved that almost every Spanish cookbook includes at least one recipe for fried eggs. Lest you think frying an egg is so basic no recipe should be required, pick up a Spanish cookbook or two and you might be amazed at how the author rhapsodizes about el huevo frito and the many ways in which it can be prepared.
La Boca offers a farm-fresh fried egg atop a Reggianito (a very hard, granular, cows’ milk cheese from Argentina) and mushroom topped Bruschetta brushed with truffle oil. It’s several orders of magnitude better than just about any fried egg you’ll ever have with a coalescence of flavors that might make you swoon. The egg is prepared over-easy with just a hint of crispiness around the edges. When the yoke breaks and golden deliciousness mingles with the other ingredients, you’ll luxuriate in an ovum that outstrips any ther.
Another tapa which blends complementary, yet on the surface, seemingly disparate ingredient combinations is the grilled artichokes with Spanish goat cheese, orange and mint. To say the artichokes are grilled to perfection is an understatement. They are both crispy and tender. The goat cheese is full-flavored with a heady aroma and mildly sharp taste. The orange and mint flavoring isn’t especially prominent which allows other tastes to come forward.
In the past few years, hummus and flatbread have become so common as to be considered almost passé. Just about every restaurant seems to have their own rendition and few, if any, come close to the time-honored, traditional hummus you might find at a Middle Eastern restaurant such as Yasmine’s Cafe in Albuquerque. Most restaurants tweak the ingredients to create their own interpretation of what should be a smooth, creamy taste of chickpea heaven. Most are poor imitations.
La Boca’s version of hummus is one of three delicious spreads offered in the Tapas Trio. The other two are an eggplant puree and a mint-feta spread. They are served with a thin pita-like flatbread grilled and served warm. The hummus has a mild garlic kick with a hint of lemon. It’s quite good, but the most attention and taste bud grabbing of the three is the mint-feta spread in which two very strong tastes complement one another to form a refreshing, yet pungent and salty-briny combination. The attentive wait staff will replenish the flatbread when you run out–and you will run out.
Perhaps the very best of the tapas is a sole canelone filled with lump crab and scallops and topped with a Manchego cream sauce then cooked and served in a clay dish. A thin pasta is engorged with sea-sweetened lump crab and scallops. There couldn’t be a better topping than the creamy, rich Manchego cheese sauce which finds its genesis in LaMancha, the land of Don Quixote. According to Geno, our affable and knowledgeable waiter, this tapa is the restaurant’s most popular. Giada, who knows a thing or two about canelone, called La Boca’s phenomenal. At her first bite, she exclaimed “this should be illegal, it’s so good.”
The Tortilla Española is the most commonly served dish in Spain with many variations often served as a light dinner in Spanish homes. Despite the name, this “tortilla” is nothing like the flour or corn tortillas served in so many restaurants in the Land of Enchantment. Instead, the Tortilla Española, as served in Spain and at La Boca, is a Spanish omelet that bears little resemblance to American omelets. In fact, it may resemble a quiche more than an American omelet. La Boca’s version is a fluffy omelet with red peppers, parmesan cheese and manzanilla olives. It’s an excellent and thoroughly delicious representation of one of Spain’s national dish.
The only item we weren’t completely enamored with is a bocadillo (little sandwiches on grilled rustic bread) constructed of tuna salad with piquillo peppers and capers. The panini-style bread dominated the tuna and left the other ingredients undiscernable. Its saving grace is a salad of fresh, delicious house greens. Other sandwiches are also available.
One of the true stars on the dinner menu is a grilled hangar steak sliced into seven pieces and served with your choice of two unique sauces–a smoked sea salt caramel sauce and a sauce made of Cabrales (a pungent and full-bodied artisan Spanish cheese) butter. Ask for both sauces, both of which are wholly antithetical in flavor. The smoked sea salt caramel sauce is caramel sweet punctuated by a discernible saltiness. The Cabrales butter has a strong blue cheese flavor with the creaminess of butter. Both are excellent foils for one another. The hangar steak is fantastic at medium rare with plenty of pink to show for it.
Another adventure in flavor is the Moroccan spiced grilled shrimp served with an avocado mojo verde similar to guacamole, but with a bit of piquancy. The shrimp have a snap when you bite into them, signifying not only freshness, but optimum preparation. The Moroccan spices give the shrimp a zesty, rich and flavorful flavor.
Having grown up in Northern New Mexico meant an early realization as to where meat comes from. It meant participating in matanzas, the slaughter of an animal, usually as part of a family celebration. Matanzas can be a traumatizing event for a child, particularly if the intended guest of honor on the plate was treated as a pet. I always gave thanks for and to the pigs, sheep and cattle which gave the ultimate unwilling sacrifice so we could eat. Pangs of guilt still visit when I eat bacon, pork chops and especially morcillas.
Morcillas are blood sausages, made by bleeding a freshly slaughtered pig and collecting its warm blood for sausages. You won’t find them at many restaurants or even family homes in New Mexico as family matanzas have largely been replaced by large supermarkets. La Boca is one of a handful of restaurants in which the intensely flavored porcine treat can be found. Made with pork blood, garlic, chile and sundry ingredients, the morcillas are sliced diagonally into bite-sized pieces of eye-opening deliciousness. Forget any preconceived notions you may have about blood sausage and try morcillas at La Boca.
Dessert tapas are on the roster at five dollars each or three for fourteen dollars. The menu lists five desserts, but there are also daily specials. You’ll have as hard a time selecting dessert as you’ll have picking main course tapas. No matter what you select, you won’t be settling.
If you love strong semi-sweet, bitter chocolate, a good choice is the pot de crème, chocolate ganache infused with espresso beans. The ganache has the consistency of soft frosting and the flavor of excellent dark chocolate. You might not even taste the espresso beans though coffee aficionados might swear they make this dessert as wonderful as it is.
To broaden your dessert experience, try the Bocaditos Especiales, a specialty platter with PX (a liqueur from the Spanish region of Montilla) injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies. These bite-sized treats are decadent and delicious, flavor explosions in every bite. Close your eyes as you bite into the PX injected figs and let the flavor of pure, heavenly deliciousness wash over you.
La Boca’s version of “happy hour” is offered Monday through Friday from 3 to 5PM when “tapas de la tarde” are offered at reduced prices.
La Boca’s menu changes periodically to keep things fresh and interesting. As such, some of the tapas described above may not be available when you visit. No matter! The genius of chef James Campbell Caruso is such that there will be new and wonderful things with which to fall in love. Your mouth will absolutely love La Boca.
72 West Marcy Street
Santa Fe, NM
1st VISIT: 10 February 2007
LATEST VISIT: 8 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Pot De Crème, Pork Fennel Sausage, Canelones, Grilled Asparagus, Grilled Artichokes, Chorizo de La Roja, Bocaditos Especiales, Grilled Hangar Steak, Tortilla Espanola, Tapas Trio, Roasted Gemini Beets, Cola