He was an academic prodigy, one of the first two persons admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico. He had a distinguished military career in the Union Army before being mustered out with the rank of Major. He served as sheriff of Santa Fe county for more than ten years and was a political power broker for both the Republican and Independent parties.
Despite such an impressive pedigree, Civil War-hero Major Jose Sena might have been forgotten by the annals of history had it not been for his fabulous Territorial-style adobe house a block east of the Santa Fe Plaza. A prime example of a Spanish hacienda, the stately home has 33 ground-level rooms arranged as a square around a garden patio with towering shade trees and a gurgling fountain.
Today Casa Sena is owned by prominent Santa Fe gallery owner Gerald Peters who has transformed what was once called home by Major Sena into a veritable art gallery with museum-quality landscapes on the walls, spectacular watercolor paintings in the outer rooms and hand-crafted Taos-style furniture throughout. Casa Sena abounds in ambience, exemplifying “old Santa Fe” style.
Replete with shops, offices and one of Santa Fe’s most highly regarded restaurants, Sena Plaza gives visitors and residents alike a glimpse of what aristocratic family life in territorial Santa Fe must have been like in the 19th Century when Major Sena, his wife and their thirteen children lived there. It’s more than fitting that the restaurant, La Casa Sena, is named for the prominent family who once lived there, moreso when you consider that “sena” translates from Spanish to English as “meal.”
Weather permitting–usually April through October–there may be no more relaxing milieu for a meal than La Casa Sena’s patio which is surrounded by hollyhocks and other flowering shrubs as well as towering shade trees. If the trees don’t provide sufficient shade, large, strategically positioned umbrellas will.
Perhaps cognizant of the fact that music not only has charms that sooth the savage breast, it helps with digestion (research indicates people take fewer forkfuls per minute when listening to slow rhythms), La Casa Sena’s Sunday brunch features the musical stylings of a classical guitarist. Coupled with light breezes, rustling leaves and the mesmerizing rivulets of water gurgling from the water fountain, the music helps provide an ambience which is tranquil and relaxing.
Broadway show tunes are at the thematic core of the adjacent La Cantina where the talented waitstaff–comprised of experienced thespians and singers–belts out show tune as they foist platters from the kitchen to the table. Musical meals are available every night of the year but Christmas. Reservations are highly recommended.
Oenophiles as well as Wine Spectator esteem highly the nearly two-thousand vintages offered on the restaurant’s wine list. The restaurant prides itself on food and wine pairings. Its philosophy is that the wines should be appropriate for the food. Most wines come from the United States, France and Spain.
In conceptualizing the restaurant’s cuisine, the goal when the restaurant was first launched decades ago was to serve the types of food which would have been served at Major Sena’s dinner table during a special occasion in the halcyon days of the great hacienda. A more ambitious menu seems to indicate, as the terrific tome La Casa Sena: The Cuisine of Santa Fe confirms, that the question now asked is “what would Major Sena have served, had he had an airplane?”
Though some ingredients no doubt find their way to La Casa Sena by plane, train and automobile, many–such as the red chile–are procured locally as La Casa Sena endeavors to use indigenous ingredients wherever possible. That distinctive chile is grown exclusively for the restaurant in a farm near Dixon where the shorter growing season imparts a uniquely delicate (translate that to tourist-friendly) flavor.
Local growers are the restaurant’s preferred suppliers for its eclectic Southwestern cuisine The New York Times described as “Northern New Mexican with a continental flair.” The cuisine’s varied influences include Native American, Spanish, Mexican and European, a cultural hodgepodge that blends together to offer the restaurant’s guests a very good meal and an excellent dining experience.
La Casa Sena serves lunch and dinner seven days a week and brunch on Sunday. Many of the items on the brunch menu were previously available on the restaurant’s breakfast menu though La Casa Sena hasn’t offered breakfast in years. Still, the brunch menu is one of the city’s best in a city which specializes in breakfast and brunch.
Shortly after you’re escorted to your table and presented with the menu, a basket of blue corn muffins impregnated with just a tinge of red chile is delivered. The muffins are only mildly sweet and the chile lacks piquancy, but they are moist and thoroughly delicious. With or without pats of butter, you may want a second complementary batch.
The appetizers are an interesting mix of primarily New Mexican starters such as guacamole and green chile stew and seafood such as flash-fried crab cake. A popular favorite that melds both New Mexican food and seafood is the sauteed mussels and black tiger shrimp in a broth of green chile-chipotle, cilantro, garlic and white wine. The portion size is not profuse as served at some restaurants, merely a handful of shrimp and fewer than a dozen mussels. It matters not as both the shrimp and mussels abound in flavor, particularly when imbued with the rich broth. Now, that broth is something you will want more of–or at least you’ll want more of the lightly toasted bread with which to sop up that delicious broth.
Years ago at a long shuttered Taos restaurant named Jacquelina’s, I was introduced to a New Mexican twist on a popular breakfast and brunch favorite–Eggs Benedict with a green chile Hollandaise. La Casa Sena’s brunch menu offers a transcendent, albeit slightly different version of that fondly recalled brunch offering. La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict is crafted with Canadian bacon and poached egg blanketed by Chimayo red chile Hollandaise on a buttermilk biscuit. It is served with smoked paprika red potatoes and is simply fantastic.
Sweet succor is also available for brunch in the form of a flap-jack griddle comprised of French toast, pecan waffles, blue pancakes, sweet butter and fresh berries. All are quite good and fortuitously not even as big as one of those plate-filling short stacks some breakfast joints proffer. The fruit is fresh and sweet, a perfect complement to the pure maple syrup.
New Mexicans will appreciate La Casa Sena’s interpretation of a New Mexican combination plate. The Sena Sampler features a green chile pork tamale, tortilla crusted shrimp with a tangy mango salsa and a crispy chicken flauta. The best of the lot is the green chile pork tamale which is draped atop a banana leaf. The pork is shredded, tender and absolutely delicious with flavor pronouncements of smokiness and a slight citrus tanginess. The tamale is adorned with a mild red chile and crema fresca, but it’s that pork that will enrapt you. The tortilla crusted shrimp is sweet and flavorful, especially when coupled with the mango salsa which is flecked with finely chopped red and green peppers for contrast.
La Casa Sena has achieved fame far beyond New Mexico’s borders. Legions of repeat visitors to Santa Fe make it one of the first restaurants they visit or to which they return. In 2007, Food Network luminary Rachael Ray filmed a segment at the restaurant for her show Tasty Travels, but she wasn’t the first Food Network glitterati who fell captive to La Casa Sena’s charms.
Years prior to Rachael Ray’s visit, Bobby Flay featured the restaurant on Food Nation. To this day he still credits the green chile cheeseburger at La Casa Sena as the most memorable burger he’s eaten from across the United States. He enjoyed it so much that he revamped a version of it for his own restaurant, Mesa Grill. Its flavors inspired the “Santa Fe burger” featured in Flay’s new cookbook, Burgers, Fries and Shakes.
Perhaps Flay was inspired by the local organic grass-fed beef used by La Casa Sena for their cheeseburger–beef that comes from cattle fed nothing but green grass and alfalfa hay. The health benefits of organic grass-fed beef are well-documented. What is often understated is how tasty it is. It’s an unctuous beef redolent with a more robust and “beefy” flavor, but with less marbling. Casa Sena drapes what appears to be a half-pound beef patty with mild green chile which is blanketed with melted Asadero cheese, a creamy cheese with a light, fresh taste similar to fresh mozzarella.
The cheeseburger is thick enough to require two hands to hold, especially if you dress it with the plate accompaniment: lettuce, tomato and red onion. Served with the cheeseburger are thick steak-cut fries with a smoked ketchup. The smoked ketchup also goes well with the burger, but with the fries it zings. It’s several orders of magnitude better than the standard and boring ketchup.
For dessert, one of several can’t miss offerings is a chocolate red chile soup in which swim a handful of honey-sugared pinons and fresh, halved strawberries. This is an ambrosial sweet offering, one you won’t want to share, even with someone you love. The “soup” is served cool and though it might be even better as cold as refrigerated pudding, it is quite wonderful. The restaurant’s Chimayo red chile is barely perceptible, but that only allows the chocolate to shine all the more.
In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as state’s very best uptown dessert to the chocolate red chile soup at La Casa Sena. It’s a well-deserved honor few would dispute.
There are many things about La Casa Sena that will inspire future visits. It is simply a restaurant to be experienced…and to experience it is to love it.
La Casa Sena
125 East Palace
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Chocolate Red Chile Soup, Flap-Jack Griddle, La Casa Sena Eggs Benedict, Sauteed Mussels & Black Tiger Shrimp, Blue Corn & Green Chile Muffins, Sena Sampler, Local organic grass-fed cheeseburger with green chile