If ever there was an expression conceived in ignorance and nurtured in hatred, it would have to be “the other side of the tracks.” That expression has always had the connotation of a bad place to be. It’s not only the “other” side of the tracks, it’s the “wrong” side, too.
It’s where “those” people who are different from us live…where that society of a “lower” socioeconomic strata slinks to at the end of the day. It’s the slums, the ghettos, the barrios… With that dyslogistical train of thought, you’d have to wonder on which side of the tracks Santa Fe’s La Choza Restaurant is situated. After all, it’s on the other side of the tracks from everyone south of Cerrillos.
The fact that La Choza is one of Santa Fe’s most popular restaurants must mean it’s on the right side of the tracks, right? Actually what it says is that the expression “the other side of the tracks” is banal and backward, an ignorant train of thinking.
La Choza is located in the adobe edifice that was the home and bunkhouse for the Mercer Ranch, a turn-of-the-century (19th) home.
Translated from Spanish, La Choza means “the shed” and that’s not a coincidence since it is the sister restaurant of The Shed, one of Santa Fe’s most popular and highly regarded dining establishments of any genre.
Similar to its elder sibling, La Choza celebrates New Mexico’s culinary heritage with some of the very best homestyle cooking you’ll find anywhere in the state. It has specialized in the cuisine of northern New Mexico since 1984.
La Choza is an inviting restaurant near the intersection of St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road, the city’s two most well-traveled thoroughfares. Unlike its sibling, you rarely have to wait a long time to be seated.
Patio dining in the summer and dining by the aromatic fire of a wood-burning stove in the winter make it an every season favorite. Service is casual and attentive with a tandem server concept.
Perhaps by design, La Choza has much to look at while you wait for your order to be filled. The ambiance isn’t what might be characterized as stereotypical New Mexican. In fact, you might even call it a “fusion” of cultures, mostly Latino though my Swedish bride swears some of the decorative flower paintings came from her ancestral homeland.
You might also see what may well be Peruvian and Mexican influenced artwork and swaths of fabric hanging from the ceiling that look as if they came right out of Saudi Arabia. It’s an interesting montage.
There’s no mistaking the menu for anything but New Mexican cuisine though some items are non-traditional (such as green chile clam chowder). Portions are generous, but no so large that you can’t have salsa and chips and a dessert, too.
La Choza’s menu isn’t exactly identical to The Shed’s and it doesn’t follow a Shed tradition of serving a thick slice of French bread with entrees. Instead, the more traditional New Mexican offering of sopaipillas or tortillas are provided. Most entrees also include beans and (or) posole, both of which are cooked with pork unless otherwise requested.
The salsa and chips are outstanding. The salsa features lush red tomatoes redolent with pungent green chile and a liberal application of cilantro. It has a slightly sweet aftertaste. You’ll run out of salsa before you run out of the warm blue and yellow corn tortilla chips.
In my estimation three restaurants are nonpareil when it comes to red chile: Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque and The Shed and La Choza in Santa Fe.
The red chile at the Santa Fe restaurants is brick red and deeply earthy with a slightly sweet taste you remember long after your meal–so good you might never order the restaurant’s green chile (which would be a mistake because the green chile is outstanding in its own right).
Still, the red chile is the quintessential New Mexico chile–the result of the ownership purchasing the entire chile bounty of two Hatch, New Mexico chile fields. Red chile is ground every day in the restaurant’s mills to prevent oxidization and ensure freshness.
Served atop stuffed sopaipillas, generous coverage of red chile overflows onto the Spanish rice and refried beans and for that you’ll be grateful. Honestly, there is no chile anywhere quite as wonderful.
The stuffed sopaipilla is engorged with pinto beans and your choice of spicy ground beef or chicken, both of which are terrific. The refried beans are among the very best you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico, so good they’ll convert you even if you disdain beans.
The carne adovada burrito is fork tender with a profundity of earthiness permeating each wonderful shard of the marinated pork cubes bathed in red chile. Those red cubes are marinated in La Choza’s unique blend of red chile pods, garlic and oregano.
A thin flour tortilla makes a wonderful “spoon” into which to ladle mouthfuls of what may be the best carne adovada in the state. It is blanketed by melting Cheddar cheese.
The pinto beans are slow-simmered and served just-off-the-stove warm. It’s no wonder they’re the most traditional New Mexican comfort dish. White corn posole with shards of pork (unless you request vegetarian) is just as wonderful.
La Choza’s dessert menu–and you’ve got to order dessert even after you consume sopaipillas with real honey–doesn’t include some favorites from The Shed. Absent from the menu is the lemon soufflé which Food Network celebrity Rachael Ray called “divine and delicate.”
Rather than bemoaning what is left off the dessert menu, celebrate the wonderful options remaining–such as homemade French apple pie topped with a profusion of chopped walnuts, cheesecake (a creamy filling on Zwieback crust with a sour cream vanilla topping), hot fudge sundae (yum, dark chocolate on rich vanilla ice cream), red raspberry sundae (fresh frozen raspberries on rich vanilla ice cream) and perhaps the best of all, the Mocha Cake.
The Mocha Cake is something special. It’s a blend of coffee and dark chocolate mousse frozen cake topped with fresh whipped cream. It’s only semi-sweet and not quite big enough to share, but it is absolutely luscious, easily among the very best desserts in Santa Fe.
While perhaps not as celebrated as The Shed (which is situated in the touristy downtown area), La Choza is equal to, if not better than its sibling. It’s wholly unpretentious and caters more to locals. Best of all, it’s on the right side of the tracks no matter what side it’s on.
La Choza Restaurant
905 Alarid Street
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 19 July 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, Enchilada Plate, Stuffed Sopaipilla, Carne Adovada Burrito, Mocha Cake