In the culinary world, the name James Beard is revered perhaps above all others. Considered the “Dean of American Cookery,” Beard established a legacy of culinary excellence and became a household name to generations of home cooks and professional chefs.
The cookbooks he authored between 1940 and 1983 are considered “a slice of American history” because those tomes span America’s culinary regions and served as a premonition of the global epicurean expanse to come.
Today, the James Beard Foundation, a national not-for-profit organization is dedicated to celebrating, preserving, and nurturing America’s culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence.
Earning a James Beard award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world. It’s the restaurant world’s equivalent of the Academy Award.
In 2003, The Shed restaurant earned the Foundation’s “America’s Classics Award,” a prestigious accolade honoring locally owned and operated regional restaurants that have withstood the test of time and are beloved in their communities.
The Foundation’s Web site describes The Shed as “A restaurant begun in a burro shed on a dusty alley in a then-sleepy little town might not sound as if it would be – 50 years later – hailed as a venerable institution. The Shed, though, has become the standard-setter for northern New Mexican fare, Santa Fe charm, and warm hospitality.”
The lobby’s multi-hued visual fodder makes it easy to miss the framed certificate commemorating the award, but you get the feeling the restaurant’s proprietors are okay with that. The Shed has been a family tradition–three generations of Carswells serving three generations of patrons–since it launched on July 4, 1953. Patrons queue up for as long as it takes to be seated in one of the restaurant’s nine rooms behind Prince Patio, a flagstone courtyard oasis drenched in sunlight and shaded by verdant vines. The Shed is housed in what was once a rambling adobe hacienda, circa 1692.
Mere steps away from the Santa Fe Plaza and an easy two blocks away from its original Burro Alley location, The Shed is a institution beloved not only by locals, but by tourists who continue to discover (or rediscover) it during sojourns to the City Different. A visit to The Shed is akin to a pilgrimage; it’s as if you’re visiting a sacred place and in a way, you really are. The Shed has been called “the soul of Santa Fe” and many patrons consider it the embodiment of Northern New Mexico hospitality and its unique cuisine–a harmonious and delicious convergence of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican influences.
Native New Mexicans returning home after a period of expatriation don’t consider themselves to be back home until they’ve had a meal featuring exceptional red and green chile. My wish would be for all New Mexicans returning to the Land of Enchantment to partake, as their first meal back, of The Shed’s exceptional chile. The red chile is brick red and deeply earthy with a slightly sweet taste you remember long after your meal. It’s the quintessential New Mexico chile–the result of the Carswells 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.
Traditional New Mexican entrees are served with blue corn tortillas, a perfect vehicle for some of the very best enchiladas in New Mexico. The enchilada and taco plate features one rolled, blue corn enchilada abounding in cheddar cheese and onion then covered in the aforementioned red chile. The soft blue corn taco is replete with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and lean ground beef marinated in red chile. It’s not the type of taco you eat with your hands; you eat it with a fork because it, too, is slathered with that oh so wonderful red chile.
The carne adovada is fork tender with a profundity of earthy flavor permeating each wonderful shard of the marinated pork cubes bathed in red chile. A thin flour tortilla makes a wonderful “spoon” into which to ladle mouthfuls of what may be some of the best carne adovada in the state. Who says so? For one, my friend Ruben Hendrickson who has made it a holy grail quest to find then duplicate the best carne adovada in New Mexico. He places The Shed’s carne adovada in rarified company along with the carne adovada at Mary & Tito’s and Duran’s Central Pharmacy.
The green chile stew features roasted, perfectly pungent green chile, cubed potatoes (including the skin) and lean pieces of tender pork swimming in a rich, hearty broth. It’s New Mexican comfort food at its finest and may have you longing for a cold winter day in which it will warm your stomach–and the cockles of your heart.
Entrees are accompanied by slow-simmered pinto beans and white-corn posole as well as a thick slice of French garlic bread, a non-New Mexican tradition apparently begun in the Burro Alley days. It’s one of those endearingly quirky things that only an outstanding New Mexican institution can get away with. The bread comes in very handy when you want to sop up any remnants of red chile.
You’ll want to start your meal with the house guacamole, salsa and tortilla chips. The salsa features lush red tomatoes (not the mushy stuff out of a can) redolent with pungent green chile and a liberal application of cilantro. It has a slightly sweet aftertaste. The guacamole is buttery and delicious made with in-season avocado.
Despite being fully sated by profligate portions, The Shed’s patrons know they absolutely must have one of the restaurant’s luscious desserts, the most celebrated being the fresh lemon soufflé which Food Network celebrity Rachael Ray called “divine and delicate” and “worth two or three times its price.” The soufflé is indeed delicate. It is also light and frothy with an intensely creamy lemon flavor that may leave you swooning in contentment.
If possible, the mocha cake may be even better thanks to a special blend of coffee and dark chocolate mousse cake topped with fresh whipped cream. The mocha cake is served cold, but it’ll warm within the confines of your mouth.
Perhaps in keeping with the loveably quaint, uniquely The Shed tradition of serving French garlic bread with your meal, the dessert menu also includes an international twist, an Italian dessert called zabaglione, a creamy custard made with Cointreau and white port. Cointreau, an orange flavored liqueur, enlivens the custard in the ways a good liqueur punctuates a great meal.
Zabaglione has been described as “one of Italy’s great gifts to the rest of the world,” an apt description. Considering the well-earned reputation and flawless execution of its desserts, it didn’t surprise me that the zabaglione at The Shed is better than you’ll find in many Italian restaurants.
Being situated so close to the tourist laden Santa Fe Plaza means long lines are fairly common at The Shed. Savvy diners who don’t want to wait will drive about a mile and a half to The Shed’s sister restaurant La Choza, another Santa Fe treasure.
113 1/2 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Blue Corn Enchiladas, Blue Corn Tacos, Carne Adovada, Green Chile Stew, Lemon Soufflé, Mocha Cake