Faced with a situation that renders us incredulous, many of us might yammer incoherently, complain vociferously or maybe even utter colorful epithets. Such moments, it seems, are best expressed with succinct precision, a rare skill mastered by a select few wordsmiths from which eloquence flows regardless of situation–polymaths such as Anthony Bourdain, a best-selling author, world traveler, renowned chef and “poet of the common man.”
Flummoxed at the discovery of a Chili’s restaurant a mere five miles from the Mexican border, I might have ranted and raved about another inferior chain restaurant and its parody of Mexican food. With nary a hint of contempt, Bourdain instead compared the spread of Chili’s restaurants across America to herpes.
Indicating that chain restaurants are “the real enemy, the thing to be feared, marginalized and kept at a distance at all costs,” he wondered aloud why anyone would eat institutionalized franchise food when the real thing is available nearby. Bourdain, a cultural assimilator, would love Los Potrillos, an unabashedly authentic Mexican restaurant which serves the food Mexican citizens eat everyday, not the pretentious touristy stuff or worse, the pseudo Mexican food proffered at Chili’s and restaurants of that ilk.
That authenticity may be one of the reasons Los Potrillos became one of Santa Fe’s most popular Mexican restaurants within months of opening in 2006. Today it’s no longer just transplanted Mexicans who frequent this colorful dining establishment situated in what was once a Pizza Hut (another chain Bourdain undoubtedly disdains).
Los Potrillos celebrates the horse, or more specifically the “potrillo,” which translates from Spanish to a “colt” or more exactly, a young horse of less than twelve months of age. The restaurant’s back wall is festooned with a colorful mural depicting several handsome horses including a noble Mexican charro horse with rider astride. The back of each wooden chair features a colt with head reared back as if in the throes of bucking off an unwanted rider. Cacti indigenous to Mexico lends to the thematic ambiance which also includes burlap curtains and sundry charro clothing and accessories. On the walls hang horseshoes, charro sombreros and other Mexican accoutrements, but you won’t find the multi-hued, touristy blankets.
Los Potrillos is owned by Gustavo and Jose Tapia who own Pepe’s Tacos next door. The menu speaks volumes about what the Tapia’s promise for your dining experience: “Not just an ordinary Mexican meal…the means of tasting how delicious our beloved Mexico is.”
Mexico is not only delicious. It is a festive country in which life is celebrated and sometimes loudly. The sole complaint we have about this fabulous restaurant is the cacophonous din of excessively loud music competing with stridently blaring televisions. Carrying on a conversation at normal voice is a challenge.
The menu is replete with lively choices, many of them heart-healthy and many quite the opposite. Mariscos (Mexican seafood) occupies more than a page of the menu which features the varied cuisines of several regions of Mexico. You’ll be hard-pressed to narrow your choice of fare; it all sounds absolutely delicious.
While you’re contemplating what to order, the amiable wait staff will bring to your table a salsa trio–salsa de arbol, chipotle salsa and a guacamole and sour cream salsa–that serves as a precursor of just how good the rest of your meal will be. The chipotle salsa, in particular, has fruity, smoky qualities that will enrapt your taste buds. The salsa de arbol is the most piquant of the three, a few levels below habanero. Each of these salsas has a taste unique unto itself, but all are complementary. Served with yellow, red and blue corn tortilla chips, you’ll ask for a second serving of each.
Appetizer options abound–such as the Quesadilla Sincronizada (so-called because the top and bottom tortillas are “synchronized” together). This is one of the very best quesadillas you’ll find anywhere: ham, chorizo, bacon, onion, bell pepper, avocado, mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeno and the requisite queso to “synchronize” the entire concoction together. While not exactly a heart-healthy appetizer option, this quesadilla is absolutely delicious, an excellent way to begin what portends to be an excellent dining experience all the way around. Bite into the jalapeno and you’ll need the cheese to quell the fire on your tongue.
One of the more popular items on the menu (which includes entrees and appetizers you won’t find anywhere else) is the molcajete al pastor. Most restaurants don’t use real molcajetes (bowls fashioned from volcanic pumice) which are painstaking to “cure” or make usable for everyday use, but Los Potrillos does. Somehow serving marinated pork in a molcajete really seems to improve the taste. Los Potrillo’s Molcajete al Pastor is an improvement over the tacos al pastor on which this popular dish is based–even those once served at the Coyote Cafe’s Rooftop Cantina which we had thought to be the best we’d ever had.
This dish is comprised of chopped pork and pineapple marinated with a special chef’s sauce and cooked over onions over a sizzling grill then served on a hot molcajete. Fresh homemade tortillas (your choice of flour or corn) and a pineapple pico de gallo salsas finish this fabulous dish. The pico is one of the two best (the other is at Sandiago’s Mexican Grill) we’ve had in New Mexico.
Among the mariscos entrees are several fish fillets inventively stuffed with various items. The Niño Envuelto (which translates from Spanish as “wrapped infant”), for example, is a fish fillet stuffed with white and yellow cheese, ham, shrimp and bacon. Despite its saltiness, this entree is delicious, particularly if you’re always begging for more bacon.
The Niño Envuelto is accompanied by rice and Mexican fries (superior by far over their French counterpart). Other entrees come with some of the best Ranchero Beans you’ll find anywhere. The menu also features several variations on parrillada (items prepared on a grill) for two. Grilled options include mariscos, meat or both–a Mexican surf and turf.
One of the interesting parrillada entrees is called Costillas Pancho Villa. The starring attraction on this entree are perfectly prepared, fall-off-the bone tender ribs which don’t lose any of their inherent moistness on the grill. They practically ooze flavor and are marinated only in seasonings. It would be blasphemous to add barbecue or picante sauce to these babies. With food enough to feed Pancho Villa’s army, this parrillada plate also includes a highly seasoned and thoroughly delicious chorizo, the very best nopalitos I’ve ever had and eight quesadillas.
The nopalitos, made from the young stem segments of the prickly pear cactus, have a delightfully tart (without pursing your lips) flavor. Spoon them into a flour or corn tortilla then add chorizo and costillas and you’ve got some of the very best tacos in town.
If your conception of Mexican food is that it’s all spicy, the Chiles en Ahogada will instantly convince you that the chef has explored the melding of sweet and savory spices to concoct an ingredient and sauce rich entree you might expect from a New Orleans chef. The dish begins with two chile poblanos (entirely benign with very little heat, but a lot of flavor) stuffed with ground beef, pecans and raisins then smothered with a cream sauce that includes nutmet and garlic.
The Chiles en Ahogada is rich, creamy and sinfully delicious, one of the best entrees we’ve had at any Mexican restaurant. It’s so wonderfully non-traditional that we’ll have it again and again (and again and…). It is also the favorite dish of Skip Munoz, a man of tremendous courage and fortitude who introduced me to it at Los Potrillos.
One commonality among many of the entrees at Los Potrillos is that, almost invariably, we leave remarking to ourselves how one dish or another was “the best we’ve ever had.” That goes for the cabrito, tender young goat meat marinated and sautéed in peanut and almond sauce, served with charros, beans and fresh, garlicky guacamole. The sauce is absolutely beguiling. I surmise it includes a puree of toasted, rehydrated guajillo chiles which are redolent with bright flavors, combining spiciness, tanginess, smokiness and warmth. At any regard, it imparts a fabulous flavor to the tender cabrito.
Dessert options include the quintessential Mexican post-prandial sweet treat, tres leches cake. It’s a vast understatement to call the Los Potrillos version moist because this beauty positively oozes with the cloying richness of three types of milk. Several refreshing aguas frescas are available to quench your thirst. The horchata is terrific as is the sandia (watermelon)!
My initial impression of Los Potrillos is that it would compete with Mariscos La Playa and Mariscos Costa Azul as the very best Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe. After my second visit, I reconsidered that assessment and concluded that it might be the very best Mexican restaurant in Northern New Mexico–better than Los Equipales and even better than El Norteño. It’s a restaurant about which Anthony Bourdain could not utter a disparaging word. He would thoroughly enjoy the taste of real Mexico in the City Different.
1947 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 14 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Nino Envuelto, Molcajete Al Pastor, Quesadilla Sincronizada, Salsa & Chips, Guacamole, Parrillada Costillas Panco Villa, Chiles en Ahogada, Cabrito