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Santa Fe and the True Taste of the Southwest

A cultural and culinary crossroads mixes old and new

John Mariani
Posted: December 3, 2003

Anasazi Restaurant boasts a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list and bold-flavored entrées.
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Santa Fe lies in the lap of hills that rise 7,000 feet above sea level, a location that contributes to the magic that has long attracted people there, including the American Indians millennia ago. The historic downtown area, with its perfect little plaza, Mexican baroque churches and adobe buildings, has a compactness that banishes traffic but encourages tourists who come for topaz, turquoise, rugs and fringed jackets. Nevertheless, the town has so far kept an identity that is both bohemian and American Indian. It's a place where artisanal traditions are entwined with eclecticism, which is reflected in its restaurants, art galleries and museums.

Indeed, Santa Fe's best restaurants define better than anywhere else in the Southwest how the region's gastronomy is an olla podrida of old and new food cultures, proudly dependent on what is grown in and around New Mexico. Menus rely on ancient staples such as corn, chile peppers, beans, avocados, huitlacoche, tomatoes and cactus as well as on the cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks and pheasant that were central to the gastronomy of European immigrants. Bison, antelope and elk are now commonly seen on menus -- though most are raised on game farms rather than in the wild. The Spanish brought cheeses, rice, sugar, lard, butter, milk and sausages. And in recent years, Asian immigrants have brought in lemongrass, litchi, soy and fruits -- items that are now sold in the Santa Fe markets and fused with regional American foods in the upscale restaurants.

There is no neat way to distinguish New Mexican cooking from south-of-the-border cooking, for they are more similar than different. Nevertheless, there is more beef, more green chiles, more blue cornmeal, more white flour and more items such as burritos and chimichangas served around Santa Fe than in Mexico. The chiles tend to be hotter, the barbecues are based more on beef, chicken and seafood than on pork, and desserts are more diverse.

There is also the strong Anglo influence of the roadside lunchroom or café, where you can get a stack of blueberry pancakes as easily as you can get a bowl of chili or an egg sandwich. For my money, that coalescence of food cultures is best appreciated at the Plaza Restaurant, set right on the town square. Opened in 1918, this gem of a storefront eatery has been in the Razatos family since 1947, and they've kept its shimmering Art Deco roadside design intact. You can start the day with a chile relleno omelet and hash browns and end it with enchiladas placeras filled with cheese and topped with grilled zucchini, queso blanco, cabbage and onions. The flapjacks and even the Greek salads are good too, and its coffee is the best in town.

If you visit Santa Fe for New Mexican food, you'll find straightforward versions of the standards and a selection of 100 margaritas at Maria's New Mexican Kitchen. But the greatest attraction is the astoundingly low prices -- some even below retail -- on Maria's wine list. The list, which has more than 100 selections, is especially strong in California Cabernets, such as Staglin Rutherford '96 ($50), Silver Oak Alexander Valley '98 ($72) and Caymus Special Selection '97 ($150).

When you move up the food chain, you get to what is arguably the most beloved restaurant in Santa Fe, the casual, funky, brightly colored Café Pasqual's, which Katharine Kagel opened in 1978. The café is always jammed, breakfast through dinner, with customers hungry for grilled, chile-rubbed steak with serrano mayonnaise and potato-chive cakes or the chicken mole presciliano, with its richly complex sauce that contains three different chiles, French bread, Mexican chocolate, cinnamon and walnuts. Kagel's dedication to healthful food extends beyond the organic meats and poultry -- all of the wines on the 60-label wine list are organically grown. On it you'll find wines such as Spottswoode '99 ($115) and Spring Mountain Reserve '99 ($110) Cabernets, Bucklin Zinfandel Sonoma Old Hill Ranch '00 ($55) and Matanzas Creek Sonoma Chardonnay '00 ($52).

Several restaurants at the fine-dining level of Santa Fe gastronomy stand out. Set in a 1756 adobe among the crafts and antiques shops along Canyon Road, Geronimo is one of the loveliest, most serene spots to dine, without a hint of pomp. It perfectly mixes Southwest elegance and nonchalance, with candlelit rooms, counterpoints of color in brown leather chairs, a hearth fireplace and Georgia O'Keeffe-like antler sculptures.

Chef Eric DiStefano emigrated to Santa Fe on the recommendation of Daniel Boulud of New York's Daniel; he believed DiStefano could make his mark there doing a sophisticated fusion of Southwestern, French and South Asian cuisine. Emblematic of this style are his grilled Mexican prawns that have been sweetened and sparked with a honey-chile glaze and partnered with crispy, aromatic jasmine rice cakes and a yuzu-basil aioli. Sonoma foie gras is treated to a quick searing, then married to a small, warm Fuji apple pie, with grape must and a bacon-chicory salad. He grills his pork chops over mesquite and accompanies them with braised veal and leek ravioli and a black truffle demi-glace.

Sommelier Paul Montoya maintains a basic list of nearly 100 labels. Strongest in Chardonnays, such as Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello '99 ($111), the basic list also offers a decent selection of Cabernets and Zinfandels, including Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside Vineyard '97 ($171) and Robert Biale Zinfandel Monte Rosso '01 ($96). Prices are about standard markup. Then there is a reserve list with offerings such as Calera Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard '97 ($157).

No restaurant in town has had more of a history of fusion cuisine than Santacafé, which has also had a slew of notable chefs over the years, including TV celebrity Ming Tsai. Now, under chef David Sellers, the restaurant's tradition of eclectic cooking continues with dishes such as roast duck spring rolls with a Southwestern ponzu dipping sauce, and Alaskan halibut, scented with rosemary, barbecued, and then sidled with smoked shrimp, serrano butter and a sweet-corn broth.

Dining in the wide, enveloping courtyard of this historic former residence with its little gazebo and flagstone floors is one of the starry night pleasures of Santa Fe. The wine list, however, is far from stellar, offering a good but unimaginative selection of familiar labels along with a few interesting items such as Lake Chalice Pinot Noir Marlborough '01 ($52) and Casa Ronde-a Meritage '02 from New Mexico ($36).

Certainly among Santa Fe's modern architectural treasures is the Inn of the Anasazi. The rough-hewn-timber ceilings and exquisite folk art -- swirling Southwest murals, Indian rugs and blankets -- in the hotel and dining rooms provide a welcome richness of color and texture in comparison with the more minimalist adobe motifs found elsewhere.

In the restaurant, chef Tom Kerpon does much the same: His flavors, presentations and portions are big and bold, starting with a bowl of grilled corn-tortilla soup with cheddar cheese. Fine sirloin of beef gets a thorough dosing with cinnamon and chile and is then grilled perfectly, sharing the plate with a sweet yellow mango salsa and mashed potatoes riddled with chipotle chiles. Navajo flatbread is piled with five roasted peppers and a black olive caponata, while tender venison shanks are cooked with white beans in a cassoulet and accompanied by potatoes mashed with white cheddar and served with mango salsa.

Anasazi's Wine Spectator Award of Excellence-winning wine list is pretty solid in every category, and the wines are chosen to match Kerpon's intense flavors. There are good selections from New Zealand, Italy and Spain, as well as trophy items at very reasonable prices -- Shafer Chardonnay Carneros Red Shoulders Ranch '00 ($84) and Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Red Rock Terrace '99 ($220), for example, along with a fine array of dessert wines.

If any restaurant can come vibrantly back from the doldrums it is The Compound. For decades, it was a dull, continental supper club whose distinction seemed to lie solely in the fidelity of its aging clientele. Since May 2000, however, under chef and owner Mark Kiffin, who was formerly chef at the Coyote Café during that restaurant's sadly passed heyday, The Compound has turned itself inside out to make a strong, minimalist statement about contemporary New Mexican, American and Old World cuisines. The walls are bone white, the wooden chairs solid, the brick floors add color, and votive candles on the tables add warmth. The covered patio is a particularly lovely spot to dine in good weather.

I like the simplicity of Kiffin's ideas, as shown in a dish of a halibut with Spanish chorizo cooked in a ceramic cazuela with slivered garlic and olive oil. He braises tender pork belly and serves it with fried green tomatoes and a malt vinegar jus. And he already has his signature takes on classics in place, such as buttermilk roast chicken with creamed spinach and foie gras gravy. He ends a meal with scrumptious fig and blackberry tarts lavished with vanilla bean ice cream.

Sommelier Adrian Gonzalez inherited a wine list of old Rieslings, Bordeaux and California Cabernets, now all sold, and he is quickly revitalizing the list with modern wines from around the world. For the moment the list holds only about 70 selections, but its principal appeal is a section called "Wines for Thirty Dollars," which includes Domaine Saint Vincent NV Brut and its 2002 Chardonnay from New Mexico; Jewel Viognier '02; Bodegas Pinord Penedès Clos 15 '00; Masia Subirana Penedès Crianza '00; and D'Arenberg McLaren Vale Coonawarra The High Trellis '00.

For a city so small, Santa Fe seems to have an outsize number of fine restaurants that not only please visitors and locals alike but are clearly in the vanguard of Southwestern cuisine. Add to this the magic of its historic setting and a laid-back sophistication, and you have a town it's impossible not to be lulled into loving.

John and Galina Mariani's new book is The Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

Anasazi Restaurant
Inn of the Anasazi, 113 Washington Ave.
Telephone (505) 988-3236
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $18-$33
Credit cards All major
Award of Excellence

Café Pasqual's
121 Don Gaspar Ave.
Telephone (505) 983-9340
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $18-$30
Credit cards All major

The Compound Restaurant
653 Canyon Road
Telephone (505) 982-4353
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $24-$30
Credit cards All major

724 Canyon Road
Telephone (505) 982-1500
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Sunday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $20-$36
Credit cards All major
Award of Excellence

Maria's New Mexican Kitchen
555 West Cordova Road
Telephone (505) 983-7929
Open Lunch, Monday to Saturday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $7-$20
Credit cards All major

Plaza Restaurant
54 Lincoln Ave.
Telephone (505) 982-1664
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $7-$15
Credit cards All major

231 Washington Ave.
Telephone (505) 984-1788
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $18-$29
Credit cards All major

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