In the polytheistic world of the Mesoamerican cultures (which include the Aztecs and Mayans), Quetzalcoatl was revered as the creator deity and patron of priests, merchants and rulers. Known as the “feathered serpent,” Quetzalcoatl was also associated with the cocoa bean and with chocolate. Great temples were erected in his honor and chocolate was offered to him. Montezuma, the 16th century Aztec ruler revered him. In Montezuma’s great city of Tenochtitlan (which the Spaniards later renamed Mexico City), chocolate was considered a luxury drink reserved exclusively for gods and the ruler class. It is believed that Montezuma’s daily constitution included 50 goblets of a finely ground, foamy red dyed chocolate flavored with chili peppers, vanilla, wild bee honey and aromatic flowers.
Today, chocolate is no longer considered exclusive to a privileged class and the celebrity-worshiping modern world no longer holds Quetzalcoatl, the “god of chocolate” in reverence. No longer are temples built in his honor or sacrifices of chocolate made in his name. Modern temples celebrating chocolate are ubiquitous in the modern world. One of New Mexico’s most renown and revered chocolate temples is the Chocolate Maven Bakery & Cafe, situated in an edifice which, from the exterior, more closely resembles a warehouse than a bakery and cafe.
In November, 2006, a modern-day goddess visited this revered chocolate temple and paid it homage for a larger audience than ever worshiped Quetzalcoatl. Giada Delaurentis, the pulchritudinous Food Network star of the television series Giada’s Weekend Getaway made the Chocolate Maven one her several stops during a late autumn visit to the City Different. While we braved the frosty air standing in line waiting for the restaurant to open for Sunday brunch, it was amusing (but not at all surprising) to listen to several in the queue practically gush with anticipation over dining at a restaurant once visited by the celebrated Ms. Delaurentis. One particularly awe-struck woman credited Giada with “teaching me how to cook.” Others, including some Santa Fe residents, had never heard of the Chocolate Maven until having watched Giada’s Weekend Getaway on the Food Network.
That surprised me because the Santa Fe Reporter, a very well written alternative newsweekly has named the Chocolate Maven one of Santa Fe’s top 40 restaurants every year since 2002. It also saddened me a bit because those people have been deprived the sheer pleasure of perusing the weekly musings of Gwyneth Doland, whose goddess-like talents in writing about food I have long admired.
The Chocolate Maven, by the way, was on my ever-expanding “must try” list for years, long before Giada Delaurentis made it a “happening place” for devotees of her show. Unlike Giada, we were unable to finagle a table by the windows which provide a view of the bakery where all the creativity really takes place. Giada remarked that the bakers “look like they can do this in their sleep,” “this” meaning turning out “award winning homemade pastries and succulent desserts.”
Our table was on the second floor in one of the restaurant’s three dining areas. To get there, we had to ascend one of two of Santa Fe’s miraculous circular, winding staircases (the other being in the Loretto Chapel). The miracle here is how the restaurant, in Giada’s words, “smells like home.” The fragrant bouquet of baking breads and pastries permeates every square inch of this distinct bakery and cafe (by the way, the Chocolate Maven started off as a bakery then in time added a cafe which explains why it is situated in the warehouse district).
While the restaurant’s name might conjure up images of decadent chocolate, you can also indulge in fabulous breakfast, brunch and lunch fare. No matter what your pleasures be, a great way to start is with a glass of Aztec hot chocolate laced with red chile. In the 15th century, Montezuma drank goblets of chocolate before visiting his concubines as it was believed to have stamina enhancing properties. The hot chocolate didn’t make me feel particularly vigorous, but this smooth semi-sweet treat certainly provided an endorphin “feel good” rush, especially when the red chile warmed the back of my throat.
Another warming sensation is provided by the Chocolate Maven’s Chilaquiles, layers of yellow and blue corn tortillas sautéed in a red chile and tomato sauce then topped with two eggs any style. Chilaquiles is considered the quintessential Mexican breakfast dish and in New Mexico, we’ve had none better. The Chilaquiles dish (pictured below) also includes skillet potatoes, but these are certainly not the “run-of-the-mill” boring skillet potatoes for which a template seems to exist at lesser restaurants. These are tender red potatoes fried to perfection and imbued with the savory sweetness of white onion and carrots.
No matter what you order for yourself, ask for a short-stack of pancakes to share with a dining companion. Griddled to a golden hue and sprinkled with just a tad of powdered sugar, these fluffy orbs are absolutely delicious. The Chocolate Maven does commit one cardinal sin by serving these pancake treasures with hard butter in packets. We can live with unheated syrup, but when you can’t slather melting butter on steamy pancakes, it’s a definite downer. Next time we might sneak in our own melted butter.
Light, fluffy eggs are certainly an integral part of the restaurant’s breakfast burrito, but it is the red chile that steals the show. While not especially piquant, the chile is seasoned with just a hint of Mexican oregano and tastes like chile which hasn’t had much shelf life. It’s got a wonderfully earthy taste that doesn’t come across in every red chile served in the Land of Enchantment.
A slight departure from New Mexico can be had with a breakfast order of migas, a traditional Tex-Mex breakfast dish originally crafted as a meatless dish for Lent. Migas consist of scrambled eggs with torn ribbons of tortilla chips, sliced chiles, diced tomatoes and cheese plus sour cream and salsa. The Maven’s version would please the most persnickety of Texans.
While the lunch portion of brunch is often short-changed in many restaurants, the menu at the Chocolate Maven includes several lunch-type entrees such as salads and sandwiches. Vegans will definitely not feel left out thanks to a generous number of meatless entrees.
On your contented way out, a stop at the bakery case is in order. It’s a wonder this bakery case isn’t covered in drool or tongue trails because the chocolate display under glass is replete with decadent temptation in the form of frosted cakes, unfrosted brownies of several varieties and formed chocolate. The Belgian chocolate brownie has the rich taste of semi-sweet cocoa and includes walnuts. It is one of the bakery’s most popular offerings, but my preference is actually for the chocolate and orange truffle brownie which adds a zesty citrus taste that complements the cocoa wonderfully.
Yet another bakery case showcases fruity pastries that would make for an excellent breakfast treat. Shelves of cookies in white paper bags also beckon. The chocolate piñon cookies have a prominent cocoa taste and are so good, you may just polish off an entire bag in one sitting.
Montezuma would have loved the Chocolate Maven. So will every chocolate fanatic. It is truly a bakery and cafe worthy of the gods!
LATEST VISIT: 22 October 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Bistro Sandwich, Pancakes, Chilaquiles, Belgian Chocolate Brownie, Orange Truffle Brownie, Aztec Hot Chocolate, Migas