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La Boca – Santa Fe, New Mexico

La Boca in Santa Fe

La Boca in Santa Fe

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.

Gino brings a bocadillo to our table

Gino brings a bocadillo to our table

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.

Canelones with lump crab, scallop and Manchego cream

Canelones with lump crab, scallop and Manchego cream

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.

Cola: Caramelized Onions, Figs, Cabrales, Balsamic Reduction

Cola: Caramelized Onions, Figs, Cabrales (a Spanish cheese), Balsamic Reduction

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.

Roasted Gemini Farms Beets with Spanish Goat Cheese

Roasted Gemini Farms Beets with Spanish Goat Cheese

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.

Bruscetta with Mushrooms, Fried Egg, Truffle Oil and Reggianito (an Argentinian cheese)

Bruscetta with Mushrooms, Fried Egg, Truffle Oil and Reggianito (an Argentinian cheese)

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.

Tapas Trio: Hummus and Eggplant Purees with Mint-Feta Spread and Flatbread

Tapas Trio: Hummus and Eggplant Purees with Mint-Feta Spread and Flatbread

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.

Tortilla Espanola: Red Pepper, Parmesan, Manzanilla Olives

Tortilla Espanola: Red Pepper, Parmesan, Manzanilla Olives

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.

From the dinner menu: Grilled Hangar Steak with Smoked Sea Salt Caramel and Cabrales Butter

From the dinner menu: Grilled Hangar Steak with Smoked Sea Salt Caramel and Cabrales Butter

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.


Moroccan Spiced Grilled Shrimp with Avocado Mojo Verde

Moroccan Spiced Grilled Shrimp with Avocado Mojo Verde

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.

Bocaditos Especiales (Specialty platter with PX injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies

Bocaditos Especiales (Specialty platter with PX injected figs, cardamom-dat truffles, apricot-pistachio divinity nougat and pecan wedding cookies

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.

La Boca
72 West Marcy Street
Santa Fe, NM
982-3433
Web Site
1st VISIT: 10 February 2007
LATEST VISIT: 8 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 25
COST: $$$$
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

La Boca on Urbanspoon

  • Phil says:

    Had the chef’s special (three tapas) chosen by the chef. and the wine flight for the special. One of the best dining experiences in NM. Date of visit Sept 11 2009.

    September 12, 2009 at 1:22 PM
  • Andrea Lin says:

    Those beets look amazing.

    And fyi, the recipe for the carrot hummus is on their site and I’ve made it MANY times for parties to great accolades.

    January 18, 2010 at 4:41 PM
  • Bruce Schor says:

    My last visit to La Boca, a favorite of my wife’s and mine, was a complete 180 from my first several lunches.
    The service was terrible. Slow,. agonizingly slow.
    One of my daughter’s tapas never arrived.
    The best our waitperson could do was say, Oh, sorry. You don’t want the beets?”
    No, we’re way past wanting the beets, we just want to beat it out of La Boca.
    The folks who showed up way after we arrived got their dishes way before we did.
    For the first time the food was not up to the usual high standards we’ve come to appreciate particularly the Serrano ham, one of my favorites.
    It wasn’t good in the basic Tapa dish nor the Cubano sandwich.
    It tasted like ham jerky, dry hard and very very chewy.
    It was disappointing to say the least.
    I’ll go back but will think twice before going into La Boca during high volume times.

    January 24, 2010 at 10:04 AM
  • RH in CT says:

    A trivial point I noticed is that the first and last visit dates are different, but the number of visits is one. Which seems contradictory.

    February 1, 2010 at 7:35 AM
  • Jim Millington says:

    I want to thank you for talking me into going by here on Valentines Day. We had two Canelones, with lump crab, scallop and Manchego cream and with rabbit. Also we had the hanger steak with shrimp and the Roasted Gemini Farms Beets with Spanish Goat Cheese. We left as very happy customers. everything was wonderful. I had seen the place when we went to Il Piatto Cucina Italiano across the street but it had not really registered in my feeble mind until I saw your review.

    February 15, 2010 at 4:14 PM
  • Ken Hutton says:

    Fabulous! Nothing more need be said!

    June 12, 2010 at 7:56 AM
  • Barbara says:

    Love La Boca for lunch. But we have had a number of unpleasant visits there in the evening. Poor service and a very rushed feeling – after our server identified us as Locals, not Tourists. We sat at the bar one evening and watched a busboy in front of us coughing and sneezing into his hands – then wiping wineglasses with those same un-washed hands (and that was in front of us – makes one wonder what goes on behind the scene). I had a big event coming up, and couldn’t afford to catch whatever plague he had, so I asked him if he were sick. “No,” he replied, quite snottily. We just couldn’t handle it. Bad manners, poor public health practices. Ew.

    October 27, 2010 at 3:33 PM
  • lynnd says:

    Just had a phenomenal meal at La Boca. Grilled artichokes, moroccan spiced shrimp,the staple of tapas, some oil cured black olives of amazing complex depth of flavor. All sensational. Service was pleasant but relaxed. Forgivable inlight of the stellar food. I can understand how it may be irritating if I was not in such a happy and contented mood. Lunch sounds like the best time for a repeat visit. The tortilla and the beets are not on the current menu. Will likely be checking back frequently for those as they are personal favorites.

    July 13, 2012 at 9:57 AM
  • Nate D says:

    This may have been the best meal I’ve eaten in New Mexico. It’s definitely in the Top 5. Grilled artichokes, tuna carpaccio with blood orange aioli, fried oysters with squid ink pasta, duck with apple potato mash among other great items. Definitely not cheap, especially if you can eat a lot like I can. However, you get what you pay for and this place is outstanding.

    February 27, 2013 at 6:09 PM
  • Ian G says:

    Had lunch here that was out of this world. My sister and I shared a seafood stew that consisted of prawns and mussels in sofrito. There was a trio of dips that were so delicious. The first consisting of beets and goat cheese, the second of white beans, and a third of garbanzo and carrot. The presentation was beautiful. Gil, please take another visit here the next time you are up north.

    November 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM

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