As a naive and impressionable child with a vivid imagination, my most frightening weekly ordeal was walking home from Catechism, especially when teachings centered around the devil and his demons. For some reason we weren’t taught about a loving God. Instead it was drilled into us that if we’re not “good” we’d go to Hell. Strangely such concepts as forgiveness and goodness were described rather abstractly while the devil (undoubtedly a progenitor of today’s elected officials) and sin were made real enough to traumatize us all. The devil was everywhere waiting to ensnare us into sin and drag us (wailing and gnashing our teeth) into Hell.
Walking home at twilight after another fire and brimstone lesson made me long for the safety and security of home. It made me quite unhappy that Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden for disobeying God. Eden is described in Genesis as “the garden of God.” Our Catechism teachers taught us Eden was a peaceful place in which we were all intended to live contented and innocent lives. Unfortunately, rather than focus on the beauty and serenity of Eden, we were petrified by descriptions of the serpent who tempted Eve to partake of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There are a lot of writhing, slithering, scary serpents (mostly garter snakes, not elected officials) in Peñasco.
In my adultery I’ve often pondered what Eden must be like. Images of lush, verdant gardens replete with all my favorite fruits come to mind. I’ve come to the conclusion that Eden must be like Zacatlán De Las Manzanas, a small city in the region of Puebla in central Mexico. Even its name bespeaks of lavish greenery and ambrosial bounty. The name Zacatlán comes from Nahuatl and mean “place of grass” (no, not New Mexico’s second favorite cash crop). The appendage “de las Manzanas” is Spanish for “of the apples,” which is derived from the area’s abundance in the production of apples.
Zacatlán is renowned worldwide for its apple orchards, growing some eighteen varieties of the pomaceous fruit, some sweet and some tart. Zacatlán’s famous apple wine and apple cider are made from a mix of both types. Graced by ample rainfall and a very fecund soil, the area’s agricultural bounty is indeed Eden-like. The website Lugares Turisticos en Mexico (literally Mexican tourist spots) describes Zacatlán as having a moderate climate. According to the site, “Only during the winter does it get cold enough to bring out the jackets and scarves, the rest of the year there is a delightful sub-humid temperate climate, alternating between sunny and cloudy days, neither hot nor cold. In addition, the air feels exceptionally clean to breathe.”
If you’d like to experience just a “taste” of my version of Eden, you can find it at Zacatlán, a Lilliputian restaurant ensconced in a charming (albeit rutted) thoroughfare in the Santa Fe Railyard District. Situated in a converted small house, Zacatlán’s intimate dining room lacks the seating capacity of nearby restaurants, but where it lacks in capacity it makes up for in sheer deliciousness. A small shaded patio precedes the entrance. From the instance you approach the restaurant, you’ll be enveloped in beguiling aromas wafting from the kitchen. Those aromas are enticing precursors to the magical fusion of Southwestern and Mexican cuisines being prepared by Chef Eduardo Rodriguez.
Chef Rodriguez grew up in agrarian Zacatlán where his family reaped the bounty of their work in the fields. The chef learned to prepare regional delicacies prepared by his mother and grandmother. As a teenager, he had the opportunity to visit two of his older brothers who were cooking in Santa Fe restaurants. The energy and creativity of the kitchens he visited became the onus for his decision to pursue becoming a chef. As with so many scions of Mexico, he couldn’t afford culinary school so he literally started at the bottom when his brothers got him a job .washing dishes at Geronimo. Chef Eric DiStefano took notice of the eager young novice, gradually promoting him to positions of increased responsibility. Rodriguez followed the legendary chef to Geronimo where DiStefano continued to mentor the quick learner on the nuances and intricacies of fine dining. Eventually Rodriguez assumed the reins of executive chef at Geronimo.
In July, 2020 during the height of the Cabrona virus, Chef Rodriguez launched Zacatlán, the culmination of his dreams, aspirations and experiences. It proved a very welcome respite for virus weary diners. Emerging from the event that shut down the world, the restaurant quickly garnered accolades. In January, 2021, In April, 2021, USA Today ranked Zacatlan tenth in its list of America’s top 10 new restaurants. Three months later Condé Nast Traveler called Zacatlán “one of the hottest tickets in town” and described its cuisine as “playful but sophisticated.” In 2022, Zacatlán was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the Best New Restaurant category.
Accolades and honors aren’t as important to the humble chef as is making diners happy by preparing amazing foods from his homeland. Mission accomplished! Our introduction to Chef Rodriguez’s talent was in the form of brunch which is currently available from Thursday through Sunday. Though we haven’t tried every brunch within the Land of Enchantment, we’ve experienced enough of them to declare Zacatlán’s brunch the best in New Mexico. It’s not an overflowing horn of plenty, but a limited and curated selection of starters, salads, soups, Zacatlán favorites and desserts. There’s something for everyone.
Our brunch experience at Zacatlán began with an arugula salad (poached pear, red chile piñon garampiñado, grapes, vinaigrette, gotes Catalanes). You’ve likely had an arugula salad or five in your time, but probably not like this one. That’s not solely because of ingredients you can’t pronounce or which you may not have had. Garampiñado simple means “coated in sugar.” Gotes Catalanes are hand-rolled orbs of goat cheese mixed with fresh garlic and parsley. Every component goes well with the peppery arugula, especially the sweet ingredients which counterbalance the serious kick you get from arugula. The goat cheese is magnificent especially when paired with the sweet-tart poached pear.
Artistically presented in a deep-rimmed plate, the enchiladas de mole negro (roasted chicken, black beans, two Mexican cheeses) are edible masterpieces, as aesthetically pleasing as they are absolutely delicious. An intensely dark and rich sauce and a generous sprinkling of creamy white cheeses blanket housemade corn tortillas which envelop moist white chicken. There is nothing subtle about mole negro, a staple of Oaxaca which combines dark chocolate, dry heat roasted chilis, nuts, seeds, and spices. Its sweet-spicy flavor is resultant from a significant undertaking. It often takes two or three days of cooking for mole negro to acquire its depth of flavor and complexity. When you’ve had a great mole negro, you’ll know it. Chef Rodriguez’s mole negro is among the best we’ve had.
Chicken and waffles have become so mainstream on brunch menus that they’re likely to inspire a ho-hum reaction. Ordinarily that would have been the case at Zacatlán. Then we more closely read the menu description: Mexican churro, fresh fruit, maple syrup, cotton candy. Cotton candy? We couldn’t remember the last time we’d had cotton candy and didn’t exactly remember this tooth-decaying fair favorite fondly. For my Kim, the churro, cotton candy and even the waffles are superfluous. It was the fried chicken she craved. Even the presentation of this brunch standard is unique. Stacked atop a thick waffle like Lincoln logs were four cinnamon-sprinkled churros. Atop the churros were two golden-hued chicken pieces, a breast and a leg. Wispy cotton candy atop the chicken resembled a cloud.
At the risk of hyperbole, these was the best chicken and waffles plate we’ve ever had. It was better than at any soul food restaurant or fine dining establishment in which we’ve had the de rigueur brunch offering. After recent experiences with hummingbird sized fried chicken, my Kim was very pleased with the poultry perfection before her. She even ate the delightfully crispy crust which had subtly sweet notes. That crust sheathed some of the most moist and delicious chicken she’s had outside my mom’s kitchen. The churros were quite good, too. The waffles would kick sand on any other waffle we’ve had. They’re thick and golden-brown in color, with a crispy outer texture and a soft interior. Their grid-like surface is a perfect repository for the sweet syrup (the real stuff). Even the cotton candy was good.
Zacatlán serves dinner Monday through Sunday from 5PM to 9PM. You’d better make reservations because this is one restaurant going places. It’s on the pantheon (Mount Rushmore if you prefer) of New Mexico’s best Mexican restaurants. Absolutely outstanding!
317 Aztec Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 28 July 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Arugula Salad, Chicken & Waffles, Enchilada de Mole Negro