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Five & Dime General Store – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe’s famous Five & Dime General Store

The late Fray Angelico Chavez, New Mexico’s preeminent historian once wrote about Santa Fe’s growth, “The only threat to her own distinctive glory, and something to guard against these days, is the kind of hurried “progress” which has, not history or humanity, but only money as its sole aim and purpose.”  Perhaps nowhere in Santa Fe has that hurried progress been more in evidence than in the world-famous Santa Fe Plaza which has seen significant changes over the years. One of the bastions against progress had been the Woolworth’s department store, in place for several generations, but which finally gave up the ghost just before the turn of the 21st century.

In its place stands the Five & Dime General Store which retains much of the charm that made Woolworth’s a throwback to better times.  Best of all, the Five & Dime retained the lunch counter in which the Frito Pie was invented nearly 50 years ago. Few, if any, do it better. The Frito Pie is served the old fashioned way, in an open bag of Fritos smothered with meaty red chile and shredded cheese.

The snack bar where dozens of Frito Pies are served

While filming “Parts Unknown” for CNN celebrity glitterati Anthony Bourdain rankled the feathers of proud New Mexicans who have loved the Five & Dime’s Frito pies for generations.  Bourdain claimed the dish was made with canned Hormel chili and a “DayGlo orange cheese-like substance.”   Worse, the acerbic one claimed the Frito pie is a Texas creation, adding that “New Mexico, you have many wonderful things.  I think, let Texas have this one.” Within days after the program’s airing, Bourdain issued a retraction.

The Food Network’s popular “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” program gave New Mexico much more love. The premise of this show is that restaurateurs and chefs know where to eat. It answers the question “where do food stars and chefs eat in their free time–when they’re paying.”  Chef Rahm Fama returned to his hometown of Santa Fe for a “Best Thing…” episode entitled “Childhood Favorites.”  In the episode, he recalled the joys of noshing on Frito pie from the original Five & Dime General Store.

The world-famous Frito Pie

The menu includes several other items, but you rarely see anyone order anything but the Frito Pie which made Woolworth’s a Santa Fe institution. The lunch counter doesn’t have much counter space and there are very few tables, so you just might have to walk around the plaza with your Frito Pie in hand, but you might never have a better one. 

Five & Dime General Store
58 E. San Francisco
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 992-1800
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 October 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Frito Pie

Five and Dime on Urbanspoon

Del Charro Saloon – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Del Charro Saloon at the Inn of the Governors

Can it truly be that the more things change, the more they stay the same? In 1776, Fermin de Mendinueta, governor and captain-general of the Spanish province of New Mexico, declared that “Santa Fe settlers are “churlish types” who are “accustomed to live apart from each other, as neither fathers nor sons associate with each other.”  In 2013, Travel & Leisure published a list of America’s “snobbiest cities” and Santa Fe made the list at number five.  The list was based on surveys of the magazine’s readers.

Mayor at the time David Cross attributed the perception of Santa Fe snobbery to the enjoyment of the arts, a point validated by the article which quoted a writer as saying “without a certain appearance or air about yourself, gallery owners barely acknowledge you when you walk in.”  Then there’s the former Santa Fe restaurateurs who had a very strict “no fragrance” (as in no eau de toilette, eau de parfum and even no Old Spice) policy at their splendorific Italian restaurant.  Even some food snobs believed that was taking haughtiness too far.

Outdoor dining with murmurations of starlings

Fortunately Santa Fe has its own version of the place where everybody knows your name…and if they don’t, they’ll still treat you well.  One of the city’s most down-to-earth (or least pretentious, depending on your perspective) venues is the Del Charro Saloon scant blocks south of the Snob Fe Plaza.  Adjacent to the Inn of the Governors, one of the city’s most reasonably priced lodgings, Del Charro is so friendly even murmurations of starlings frequent it or at least they frequent the fireside patio which is covered and heated during cold weather.  The inviting fragrance of woodsmoke permeates the warm, amiable milieu.

Named for the nattily attired Mexican horseman, Del Charro is one of Santa Fe’s most popular watering holes. In 2012, readers of the Santa Fe Reporter voted it Santa Fe’s best bar in its annual “best of” issue.  Del Charro also garnered acclaim as “the most affordable restaurant” in Santa Fe, a tribute to its no-snobbery prices.  The menu’s pub fare is as good as higher priced “cuisine” served at other restaurants in town.

Chips, Salsa and Guacamole

You’ve probably noticed the scarcity of New Mexican restaurants serving complimentary chips and salsa.  Not only do they charge you for something which until recent years has always been free, if you want to make it a triumvirate by adding guacamole, you’ll pay a king’s ransom.  It’s almost shameful how highly some restaurants think (based on ridiculously high charges) of their chips, salsa and especially their guacamole.  While Del Charro’s chips and salsa aren’t gratis, they are inexpensive ($3) and the cost ($1.50) to add guacamole won’t break the bank.  It’s refreshing to pay appetizer prices for appetizers. 

The salsa and guacamole are served in red corn tortilla “bowls.”  The salsa is thick and made from fire-roasted tomatoes.  It’s not especially piquant and is made with just a bit too much Mexican oregano which really changes its flavor profile by making it overly acerbic. The guacamole is infused with a hint of lime and with chopped tomatoes.  It’s creamy and rich with a fresh avocado flavor.  The chips are light, crispy and relatively light in salt.  The chips, salsa and guacamole are quite good, especially considering the pittance you’ll pay for them.

Two Sliders with Housemade Potato Chips

Mustard and ketchup dispensers are positioned next to the salt and pepper on every table.  Order the two sliders plate and you can apply mustard and (or) ketchup to your liking, not as some overzealous dispenser squeezer applies them for you.  In fact, the sliders are served naked–only beef patties on a brioche style bun.  You can ask for other ingredients if you’d like.  A few grilled onions and with more than a little imagination you can almost convince yourself you’re enjoying White Castle sliders.  Given your choice of sides (French Fries, Cole slaw, Potato Salad or Potato Chips) opt for the chips.  They’re housemade, crispy, low in salt and fun to eat.

Over the years, innovative restaurateurs throughout the state have attempted to place their own stamp on New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburger.  The avant garde versions–those that deviate most from the delicious simplicity of green chile cheeseburgers–are the most interesting.  Their departure into heretofore untried methods and ingredient combinations don’t always work.  I’d heard tell of a daringly different approach to the green chile cheeseburger at Del Charro and had to try it.

Stuffed Green Chile Cheeseburger with Beer-Battered Fries

Del Charro’s signature burger is a stuffed green chile cheeseburger.  While “stuffed” has been done before, Del Charro’s version has actually drawn praise from respected burger connoisseurs.  The “stuff” in the “stuffed” includes applewood smoked bacon, autumn-roast green chile and Gorgonzola all mixed into the chipotle barbecue sauce-tinged beef before the patty is formed.  Served with crisp lettuce, red onion and a thick, unripened tomato on the side, if you want to taste the stuff, you might want to dispense with the aforementioned sides.  Adorn your burger instead with the contents of the ramekin of green chile relish so wonderfully reminiscent of the fabulous Cajun chow-chow relishes we enjoyed in New Orleans.  The green chile relish is mildly piquant, sweet and tangy.  It’s so good it should be bottled and sold!  Not only was it the highlight of a much-touted burger, it enlivened the accompanying beer-battered fries, too.

With a menu which might best be described as “bar fare with a Southwestern leaning” and not strictly New Mexican, it’s not surprising to see Del Charro’s menu list some items as including “chile” and others being made with “chili.”  Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference in any of the other 49 states, but in New Mexico there’s only one way to spell chile and that’s ending with an “e,” not an “i.”  Just to make sure, we asked if the Frito pie (for which the spelling “chili” is used) is made with New Mexican chile or with Tejano chili. Our server assured us the Frito pie is made with New Mexican chile.  

Frito Pie

Alas, not all chile is created (or seasoned) equal.  The New Mexican red chile, while pleasant enough, doesn’t have much of a bite (perhaps out of deference for tourists who frequent Del Charro).   The Frito Pie, large enough for a small family to share, is a mound of beef chili (SIC; my Mac is chaffing at that spelling), Frito’s corn chips, Cheddar-Jack cheese, chopped onions, shredded lettuce and pico de gallo.   Though not especially piquant, Del Charro’s Frito pie is not one you’d kick off your table.  Made with fresh ingredients which go well together, it’s a solid Frito pie.

There are only three desserts on the menu, the most popular of which are the natillas. Served in a “bowl” fashioned from a fried tortilla, the natillas  (a thick, creamy custard-like dessert) are served at just about room temperature and are sprinkled with a generous amount of cinnamon.  With virtually no lumps to distract you, you may want to close your eyes and luxuriate in the smooth, sweet vanilla deliciousness in front of you.  The fried tortilla “bowl” is more utilitarian than it is edible.

Natillas

Del Charro calls itself “Santa Fe’s watering hole” and while adult libations are certainly a popular draw, value-conscious diners who want a quality meal will enjoy one of the best “cheap eats” options in the vicinity of the Plaza.

Del Charro Saloon
101 West Alameda
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 954-0320
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 October 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stuffed Green Chile Cheese Burger, Natillas, Frito Pie, Sliders, Salsa, Chips and Guacamole

Del Charro Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tara Thai Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Tara Thai Cuisine on Wyoming just south of Menaul

The Internet is replete with personality assessments. Some–such as a personality assessment based on your choice of pizza toppings–are created by psychologists ostensibly intent on obtaining scientifically valid results, but many others are intended solely for fun and have no real validity.  In the latter category, most assessments can easily be manipulated to achieve the results you want.  As you’re responding to questions, an inevitable conclusion becomes transparent.  You can usually tell by the way you’re answering those questions what the results will be.  On the other hand, some personality assessments are baffling.  While you may think you’re manipulating the results, the subsequent assessment winds up contrary to your responses.

One such assessment purports to tell you which “Big Bang Theory” character you are–to expose the inner geek or super hot neighbor inside all of us.   For readers who may not be familiar with The Big Bang Theory, TV.com describes it as “a sitcom that shows what happens when hyper-intelligent roommates/physicists Sheldon and Leonard meet Penny, a beautiful woman moving in next door–and realize they know next to nothing about life outside of the lab. Rounding out the crew are the smarmy Wolowitz, who thinks he’s as sexy as he is brainy, and Koothrappali, who suffers from an inability to speak in the presence of a woman.”

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Tara Thai’s dining room

Answering semi-honestly so as to derive semi-valid results, it turns out the Big Bang Theory character with which I most identify is Sheldon Cooper (at least according to this personality assessment), whom the assessment synopsizes as being “a wunderkind for longer than you can remember” and “always the smartest person in the room” although “you have a hard time connecting with people sometimes,” not that it matters because “you’ll be the leader of a new race of cyborg-humans soon enough.”  Bazinga!

While some of these character traits may–to a greater extent than I care to admit–accurately profile me, before taking the assessment, I would have said Sheldon is the Big Bang Theory character with whom I least identify.  That’s most readily apparent in the way we approach dining.  Possessing personality traits consistent with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Sheldon’s food schedule is practically set in stone.  It’s monotonous and monogamous.  On Mondays, it’s always mee krob and chicken satay with extra peanut sauce from Siam Palace.  On Tuesdays, it’s the Cheesecake Factory’s barbecue bacon cheese burger with cheese on the side while the Thursday staple is pizza with sausage, mushrooms and light olives from Giacomo’s.  Can you imagine how boring a food blog based on Sheldon’s dining preferences would be?

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Gyoza with sweet chili sauce

As a gastronome whose culinary leanings are wholly antithetical to those of Sheldon Cooper, I actually felt a twinge of sympathy for the erudite one when we first stepped into Tara Thai Cuisine and imbibed the magical aromas emanating from the kitchen.  Despite an IQ which can’t accurately be measured by standard tests and an eidetic memory the envy of anyone experiencing advancing geriatric progression, Sheldon’s quirkiness would not allow him to try some of the alluring offerings on the Tara Thai menu.  Worse, that menu doesn’t include mee krob, his favorite entree and no one, not even Sheldon. can live on chicken satay with extra peanut sauce alone.

Tara Thai is the type of restaurant which most makes me happy to be a gastronome. It’s got most of the Thai standards aficionados love and it’s got exciting dishes, including fabulous seasonal specials, heretofore not found in the Duke City. The Albuquerque Journal’s luminous restaurant critic Andrea Lin accorded it a rare four-star rating, likening it to a “red giant of a fiery star” among the Duke City’s pantheon of very good to excellent Thai restaurants. Fiery is an apt descriptor for many of Tara Thai’s dishes which are prepared to your exacting degree of heat preference.  

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Chicken Satay with peanut curry sauce and cucumber salad

Located within the sprawling Wyoming Mall and immediately next door to the Cool Water Fusion restaurant, Tara Thai’s motto and mission statement are to “excite the senses.” Prepared well, few of the world’s cuisines have the ability to excite the senses, particularly the sense of taste, more than Thai cuisine. Although widely known for its spiciness, balance, variety and detail are essential to Thai cooking. The best Thai restaurants are adept at balancing the five fundamental tastes–spicy, sweet, savory, sour and (optionally) bitter—within a meal, and often within an individual dish. Tara Thai is such a restaurant.

1 February 2014: Although Thai food can be very filling, it’s such a palate exciting cuisine to eat that you’ll want to sample at least two appetizers. Make one of them gyoza, an Asian dumpling commonly known as a “potsticker” or “dumpling” in America. Although most widely associated with Japanese cuisine, gyoza actually originated in China, but are common throughout Asia. At Tara Thai, the gyoza appear to be steamed then pan-grilled, my favorite method for preparing these delightful pockets. Tara Thai’s gyoza are engorged with chicken and mixed vegetables then served with a sweet chili dipping sauce. This eight-piece starter is artfully plated, but the true artistry is in their deliciousness.

Chicken Spring Rolls

1 February 2014: Somehow the “Big Bang Theory” personality assessment surmised that Sheldon Cooper and I are compatible–at least in terms of our common affinity for chicken satay with extra peanut sauce. The persnickety physicist would love Tara Thai’s chicken satay, five chicken skewers marinated in yellow curry served with a peanut curry sauce and cucumber salad. With a savory-sweet flavor profile, the peanut curry sauce is magnificent as is the cucumber salad, but the chicken is the star. It’s fresh, moist and imbued with the sweet-savory-pungent flavors of a superb yellow curry.

11 October 2014:  The Fall specials menu in 2014 included chicken spring rolls, a terrific option you don’t see very often in a pork or vegetable dominated spring roll market.  The chicken spring rolls, four to an order, are engorged with chicken, cabbage and onion and are served with a housemade sweet and sour sauce.  As with many Thai spring rolls, these are fried to a golden hue, leaving the wrapper crispy.  There’s a nice balance, both in quality and in flavor accentuation, between minced chicken and vegetables.  Alas the “sweet and sour” sauce is a misnomer in that sweet is the dominant taste (to an extreme extent).  The chicken spring rolls deserve better.

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Asian Pumpkin Red Curry with Chicken

11 October 2014:  Claims have been made (though to my knowledge not scientifically validated) that bite-sized foods taste better, perhaps because we don’t have to open up quite as wide to enjoy them.  The Thai-style meatballs at Tara Thai certainly taste better than many of the Italian, Swiss and American meatballs we’ve had at Duke City restaurants.  These grilled meatballs (two skewers with four meatballs each) are imbued with lively Thai seasonings and not with the cracker or bread filler that too often makes up meatballs in other cultures.  Alas, as with the chicken spring rolls, they’re served with an anemic sweet “chili” sauce, emphasis on the sweet.

1 February 2014: With his propensity for repetition, Sheldon would not enjoy Tara Thai’s fall specials, a five item menu so enticing even the non-OCD among us will be hard-pressed to decide which to have. How, for example, can you pick from among Asian pumpkin red curry with chicken and duck curry? The answer, of course, is to order one today and return for the other tomorrow. The Asian pumpkin red curry with chicken is superb, an amalgam of hearty Asian pumpkin chunks, white meat chicken, red chili paste curry in coconut milk with bamboo shoots, bell pepper and fresh Thai basil. This is Thai comfort food at its finest, especially if you order it at least “hot.” It quickly became my favorite Thai dish in Albuquerque. That will probably last until my next visit when I order the duck curry. 

Duck Curry: Roast duck, red chili paste in coconut milk with fresh pineapple, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, and basil

11 October 2014:  In six visits to Lotus of Siam (the best Thai restaurant in the universe), my taste buds have thrice experienced la petite mort courtesy of a duck curry dish so good, no one else should make it.   By any other restaurant’s standards, the duck curry (roast duck, red chili paste in coconut milk with fresh pineapple, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and basil) at Tara Thai might be the very best dish on the menu, but (paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen’s most famous quote) it’s not the Lotus of Siam’s duck curry.   The “cherry” tomatoes are in the form of large slices; my Lotus of Siam inspired preference is for bite-sized grape tomatoes.   That may seem a minor point, but an ingredient-by-ingredient comparison would yield similar commentary for every aspect of the dish.  Then there was the matter of the degree of heat (hot) which our server described as “as hot as the hottest chile in Albuquerque.”  To my Kim it was molten death; to me, it was insipid compared to the xx-hot chile at the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company.

1 February 2014: If you love fiery heat (as most New Mexicans do), Tara Thai should make all but a few bona fide fire-eaters very happy. You can even find heat in the five-item fried rice menu. The spicy fried rice (fresh garlic, chili, onion, bell pepper and Thai basil with your choice of chicken, beef or pork) lives up to its name without detracting in the least from the other components in this dish. The fresh garlic and Thai basil, in particular, stand out. The rice itself is fluffy and perfectly prepared.

Pad Thai

1 February 2014: Tara Thai’s “pad” menu is as exciting as any you’ll find in New Mexico. Pad, a Thai term which describes stir-fry, is a specialty of the house with ten items on the “wok” menu. Pad Pet is the choice for heat lovers, not for the faint of heart. Though you can request it be prepared at “mild” or “medium” levels of heat, you’re still going to feel the burn. It’s a good burn, a delicious burn. The heat comes from sautéed red chili paste on a stir-fry dish which includes baby corn, mushroom, onion, bamboo shoot, garlic and Thai basil. Feel the heat and love it with this dish!

11 October 2014:   Not wanting a repeat of her experiences with the Pad Pet (which she described as “death by noodles”) my Kim ordered the safest, most innocuous dish on any Thai restaurant’s menu–Pad Thai.  I’ve often referred to Pad Thai as “Pad Boring” (sorry, Ryan) because it lacks the incendiary, “pain is a flavor” personality of my favorite Thai dishes.  Tara Thai’s rendition is actually quite good, perhaps the best we’ve had in the Duke City.  The stir-fried rice noodles are masterfully prepared and enjoyable as is every other ingredient on this popular dish.

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Pad Pet

11 October 2014: With eight items, Tara Thai’s dessert menu is actually quite sizable compared to many Thai restaurants.  Every dessert listed is inviting and tempting, but in-season, there can only truly ever be one option: mangoes with sticky rice.  In Thailand, this delightful dessert is actually a finger food eaten by rolling the rice with the fingers and scooping up mango slices.  There’s too much coconut milk on Tara Thai’s version for Thai-style eating, not to mention American sensitivities.  At any regard, this is a wonderful dish, one we miss greatly when mangoes go out of season.

Mangoes with Sticky Rice

Tara Thai is the type of restaurant which could easily become a habit. In that respect, I envy Sheldon Cooper who could visit every Monday and not think twice about it. From the moment you walk in and imbibe the magnificent aromas from the kitchen to the moment you leave, completely contented and full, you’re in for a great dining experience in one of the best Thai restaurants in the Albuquerque.

Tara Thai
2010 Wyoming Blvd, N.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-2278
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 October 2014
1st VISIT: 1 February 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gyoza, Chicken Satay, Chicken Spring Rolls, Grilled Meatballs, Asian Pumpkin Red Curry with Chicken, Duck Curry, Pad Thai, Pad Pet, Spicy Fried Rice, Mangoes with Sticky Rice

Tara Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon