By the time my Kim and I returned to New Mexico in 1995, the days of my family steam-baking chicos in hornos were long past, but she sure was intrigued by our mud and adobe outdoor ovens. She wasn’t so much interesting in exaggerated tales of our back-breaking labors, but of the process of baking chicos in those hornos. We explained that the process began by building a fire inside the oven and letting it burn for hours–long enough for the hornos’ mud walls and floor to acquire a thermal capacity perfect for steaming corn. The corn isn’t inserted into the horno until all that’s left of the fire is red embers. With the corn nestled comfortably atop the ashes, we would sprinkle water over the corn to inspire steam. We would then seal the horno door with adobe bricks, We would also seal the “smoke hole” in back of the horno. The corn was then baked overnight.
At this point you might still be wondering what “chicos” are. Chicos begin as an ear of field corn which is tied into ristras (strings) and hung to dry. Alternatively, as we preferred, the corn is baked (steamed) in an horno where it acquired a fantastic smoked flavor. The kernels are then removed and stored until cooking time. When cooked (reconstituted in water), they swell up to their former size and taste like freshly smoked corn. In combination with pinto beans, they are magnificent, one of my very favorite meals! Very few restaurants in Northern New Mexico even offer chicos on their menus, but chicos are still enjoyed at family homes throughout Northern New Mexico.
My Kim takes the term “horno” literally to mean a mud brick oven. She didn’t expect an actual mud oven inside a Santa Fe restaurant called Horno, but she did hope for the type of fare my family baked on our hornos–not only chicos, but bread and empanadas. It didn’t dawn on her (or me for that matter) that the English translation for the Spanish word horno is actually “oven.” Apparently any type of oven–gas, electric, solar–is an horno. Neither of my sainted grandmothers would have accepted that definition and would probably have threatened to seal Webster’s lexicologists in one of our family hornos (the mud ones).
So, because an horno can be any kind of oven, no one of the woke persuasion can cry “cultural appropriation.” So just what does Santa Fe’s Horno Restaurant do with its ovens? Horno’s website describes the restaurant as a “gastropub where street food meets indoor dining.” The website further boasts “We’re going to do fine food but not fine dining. No white tablecloths. I have honed the art of making great food that is not killer expensive. No pretense, just great food.” The perfunctory vision statement also declares “Our vision is to create a world where anyone can feel confident dining out and enjoying fine food while simultaneously supporting local farmers, and collaborating with others for the health of our community.”
Horno must be exceeding expectations set forth in its website. Chef David Sellers was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award as Best Chef – Southwest in 2023. Dozens of food truck operators would probably also argue that Chef Sellers should be canonized as the patron saint of street food. In 2014, he created the Street Food Institute, which taught people without funding how to acquire and operate food trucks. Far more than conveying business practices, he taught his students to instill passion into their cooking. For the seven years in which he ran the Street Food Institute, Chef Sellers also ran three food trucks in which students received practical experience. Those three food trucks–in Santa Fe and Albuquerque–continue to provide culinary excellence on wheels. So do nearly twenty other food trucks whose owners benefitted from the tutelage of Chef Sellers.
Chef Sellers launched Horno in 2022. It’s readily apparent learning was a reciprocal process at the Street Food Institute where he helped students launch food trucks serving Vietnamese, Thai and Green street food (among foods of other culinary cultures). Elements of those cuisines as well as Mediterranean and Italian menu items, ingredients and techniques are showcased on a menu that features seasonal ingredients. The menu is an exciting melange of items you might not expect to see together in one restaurant. There is something to pique every diner’s interest. We were accompanied by our dear friends Bill and Tish Resnik, discerning diners with varying tastes.
Horno is located on West Marcy Street at the spot that served as home to beloved Santa Fe institution Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen which closed during the height of the Cabrona Virus. A block north of the famous Santa Fe Plaza, Horno offers a small patio which even during winter’s bite is heated by very efficient commercial patio heaters. Two cozy dining rooms are separated by a greeter’s station from which diners are escorted to their tables. Seating is in relatively close proximity. One discernible aspect of a dining experience at Horno is the volume of conversations, traipsing along the hard wood floors and general ambient noise. It’s not a restaurant in which you can expect a hushed, intimate conversation.
Befitting a restaurant owned and operated by a Chef often associated with being on the road, the menu is titled “David’s Culinary Journey.” From the moment you focus on that menu, you’ll be challenge to make a quick decision. It took our party nearly fifteen minutes to decide what starters to order. Bill and I could probably eat a tumbleweed if it’s seasoned well, but our brides aren’t quite as adventurous. Ultimately Bill and I ordered an appetizer only we would like and our girls ordered appetizers they would enjoy.
One of the hallmarks of New Mexico’s Native American pueblos is the assurance that horno-baked bread will be outstanding. That doesn’t necessarily extrapolate to a restaurant with the appellation Horno. We discovered that Horno Focaccia is not the same (not nearly as good) as horno-baked bread. Three slices to an order is what will be delivered to your table. Mathematically that doesn’t work well for parties of four. Though all three of our slices were noticeably burnt, only one slice was replaced. What made the situation worse is that the accompanying bread dips were actually quite good. Standard dips include olive oil, herbs and garlic. For a pretty penny, you can also have honey whipped goat cheese and Sicilian olive tapenade. The tapenade, in particular, was quite good and deserved so much better than the bread for which it was designated.
Perhaps only a staunch vegetarian would opt for a starter listing zucchini, mushrooms, eggplant, mint and basil as featured ingredients. Tish is no vegetarian, but she is a reasonable, health-minded diner who intuited that Horno’s miso-roasted veggies would be delicious. Fortunately she shared her bounty with the rest of us. I’m now inclined to believe that in the hands of the right chef, miso can improve the flavor of anything (read my rant of the black cod with a miso glaze at Blades Bistro in Placitas). Miso is a fermented paste that adds a salty umami flavor to many dishes. Light miso, which is what I suspect was used on the miso-roasted veggies, is lighter, sweeter and just terrific on vegetables. Frankly, it also makes a wonderful dipping sauce for any remaining bread you might have.
The Korean BBQ Pork Belly (pickled vegetable salad, gochujang, kimchi aioli) was also a winner. As expected, the pork belly was salty, meaty and incredibly rich. It’s also packed with just enough of the irresistible umami that makes bacon just about everyone’s favorite food. This starter was made even more special by the sweet-savory-tangy-piquant flavors of the accompanying pickled vegetable salad and the Korean ingredients. Gochujang has been described as “a bit spicy, a bit funky, salty and deeply savoury.” Pair it with a kimchi aioli and you’ve got dynamite. Delicious dynamite!
Cappellini, very thin cylindrical noodles cut into twelve-inch strands translates from Italian to “little hairs.” That may not sound very appetizing…maybe even less so for some of you if the noodles are made from black squid ink. Frankly, it’s the latter qualities that made Horno’s squid ink cappellini (rock shrimp, lump crab, piquillo peppers, basil, saffron cream, garlic breadcrumbs) so appealing to me. Squid ink, the black liquid pigment squid produce to protect themselves from predators is no longer a mysterious culinary ingredient, particularly when used on pasta. Squid ink does share the flavor of fresh fish from the sea with a hint of umami. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like it, you really like it…and I’ve always liked it. Paired with such complementary ingredients as piquillo peppers, saffron cream and basil, Horno’s squid ink cappellini is an intensely flavored dish with aromatic qualities. It’s got plenty of personality.
My Kim and Bill both had one of the day’s special, a six-ounce filet with oven-roasted new potatoes, a piquillo pepper coulis, broccolini and a gorgonzola sauce. The filet was so tender you could cut it with a butter knife. Prepared at my Kim’s exacting level of doneness (medium), her steak was pinkish and juicy throughout. Bill praised the broccolini, something he thought he’d never do. Broccolini is much sweeter and more earthy than broccoli. When it’s prepared correctly, it’s a wonderful accompaniment to meat dishes (or sandwiches). Both Kim and Bill thought the gorgonzola, usually a sharp and full-flavored cheese, was rather innocuous with not nearly enough of the blue cheese flavor it should have.
There are only four desserts on the menu, but there’s one for virtually every taste–including a vegan chocolate tahini torte. Bill and I both had the English toffee pudding. Remember, “pudding” in England is not nearly the same as “pudding” in the colonies. When Brits talk about pudding, they’re referring to an incredibly far-ranging number of dishes that don’t necessarily have commonalities. They can be sweet or savory and can be prepared in multiple ways. They can be stuffed or not and can be made with a wide variety of ingredients. Pudding is a very inexact dish, but then the United States and England are two countries separated by a common language. English toffee pudding is a type of a cake filled with chopped dates that’s covered in a bourbon caramel and served with a semi freddo.
The Horno Restaurant may not offer any of the dishes with which those who grew up tending to mud ovens are intimately acquainted, but it does provide an intriguing menu of dishes, many of which might just become favorites. One word of caution, however. Though the restaurant may consider itself “not killer expensive,” our meal cost $310.
95 West Marcy Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Website | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 February 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Tuna Tartare, English Toffee Pudding, Squid Ink Cappellini, Miso Roasted Veggies, 6-Ounce Filet, Korean BBQ Pork Belly,
11 thoughts on “Horno Restaurant – Santa Fe, New Mexico”
We had a nice dinner- nice dining space, nice server. Promptly seated at nice table in front corner. Good service.
We had mixed opinions on the food. *Really like the focaccia. Ordered the 3 extra dips. Did not think they were worth $6 upcharge.
* Beet salad was very good. They were nice enough to split it for us.
* We both had the duck; it was the “raison d’être”. We were both underwhelmed.
– It looked nothing like the picture on FB.
– I expected it to have more of an Asian taste since it was Char Su. It didn’t. It was pretty bland.
– My leg quarter was cut into drum and thigh; hubby’s was 1 piece which was a bit awkward to eat.
– it was was bordering on overcooked.
The accompaniments were a bit odd combo (overcooked baby bok choy, sweet potatoes and farro and mushrooms).
– sauce/gravy was lackluster.
We drove an hour each way to have our first in restaurant dining in a very long time.
You said you had a nice dinner, but it sounded fairly underwhelming and it probably cost quite a bit. Would you go back?
I’m happy to see you’ve survived the Cabrona virus intact. I’ve missed seeing your always thoughtful comments on my blog.
Awww, thanks, Gil. We’ve been AWOL from dining out for close to 3 years. Finally getting back in the saddle – so to speak. I’ll be pestering you more from now on 😉😊
Gil, what is the picture of on the main page for this restaurant? Looks like some kind of salad with, pasta? Thanks!
It’s the dumplings (Vegetable dumplings, lemongrass, coconut kaffir broth, bok choy, mushrooms, Szechuan chile oil). There were a whopping four dumplings in this entree. It’s the only thing I didn’t taste so I didn’t write about it. Tish did say it was delicious, but there was just too little.
You can get chicos every Monday at Atrisco in Santa Fe. They are so popular they tend to run out by dinner time. Also the Santa Fe Tomasita’s has them on Saturday. I feel like I’m getting a rare gourmet treat when I order them. They are heavenly.
We found Horno to be way too noisy when we first went there–ear-bleedingly harsh. We said something about it to the host, but we were blown off as complaining old people. (“We’re the hot new place. Of course it’s noisy.”) Later I read that they had tried to remediate the noise level with buffers, but it doesn’t sound like it helped all that much. I’m not in any hurry to go back, although some of the food sounds lovely.
Thank you for taking one for the team!
Thank you, Stella. Chicos are indeed heavenly. We’re going to have to spend more time in Santa Fe.
Maybe the Tomasita’s in Albuquerque has them?
It looks like the Tomasita’s in Albuquerque has chicos on Saturday, too.
Thank you, Stella. Chicos are fantastic! I look forward to sampling them at Tomasita’s.