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Tasting Through Santa Fe

Amid breathtaking scenery, New Mexico's capital and its surroundings offer a vibrant dining scene full of local flavor
Photo by: Emma Balter
A typical bustling scene at Coyote Cantina, a rooftop bar in downtown Santa Fe.

Posted: Sep 11, 2018 4:30pm ET

By Emma Balter

Santa Fe, N.M., holds a special place in my heart. I visited New Mexico for the first time in the summer of 2014 and fell head over heels for the beauty of its landscape; the feeling of serenity I get from its desert expanse, towering mountains and vibrant colors is unparalleled by anywhere else I've traveled to.

I've been back quite a few times since, and have eaten through my fair share of the region's eateries. New Mexican cuisine is its own thing, taking elements from Mexican and Native American food, and smothering most dishes in the local red and green Hatch chile peppers. Many restaurants also offer serious wine programs, several of them earning a Wine Spectator Restaurant Award.

While you're in town, be sure to make some time to appreciate the art scene, like the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the galleries along Canyon Road, and Museum Hill, which includes four museums dedicated to native and colonial art and culture, as well as a botanical garden. These institutions and the following restaurants will have you coming back again and again.

Get some local flavor

There's always a wait for the Shed, but it's always worth it. This colorful cafe just off Santa Fe Plaza has been serving up some of the best New Mexican fare in the city since it opened in 1953. (It moved to its current location in 1960.) My favorite order is the carne adovada (pork marinated in red chile and garlic) plate, which comes with a blue corn enchilada, pinto beans and posole—and yes, the portions are as big as the flavors. To wash that down, there's a long tequila and mezcal list, cocktails, and a small but decent wine list.

If you're strolling on the plaza itself, you'll spot the bright turquoise and pink El Molero Fajitas cart, which attracts hordes of hungry patrons every day of the week with their chicken and beef fajitas and tamales. Grab one and have a seat on a bench in the plaza—you might want to order a fresh-squeezed lemonade with it, as the food is pretty spicy.

Wine and dine

Emma Balter
Elegant alfresco dining at Radish & Rye

Of course, Santa Fe has more upscale restaurants too, and the best one I've discovered recently is Radish & Rye, opened in 2015. The kitchen serves seasonal American cuisine with local and Southern accents. The fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese are lightly crispy, tart and juicy, and the smoked ribs in chipotle Carolina sauce melt in your mouth. The green chile corn bake is a great order for the table—like cornbread, but with a moister, eggy texture and, of course, spicy chile. With more than 100 selections, the wine list is concise and well-curated, with a focus on California, allying oddball picks and big names. And as the restaurant's name suggests, you should knock down some Bourbon from the extensive list as a nightcap.

Other standouts from my trips include Geronimo, which has been an institution on Canyon Road since it opened in 1992. The elegant dining room and service project old-school charm, and this is the best place in town to indulge in an elk tenderloin. The Award of Excellence–winning wine list is heavy on California, hitting the main notes when it comes to big names and reliable producers, with some French selections from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône and more.

Best of Award of Excellence winner La Casa Sena has also been a local mainstay for the past 30 years, and has an adjoining wine shop that is hands-down the best place to buy wine at retail in Santa Fe. The restaurant's 1,850-selection wine list further reflects the team's dedication to a great wine program. It spans all the main regions of the wine world, with many top bottlings and producers, some verticals and vintage depth in Burgundy, Piedmont and Tuscany, as well as solid picks from Germany, Spain, the Southern Hemisphere and more. I recommend eating here for lunch in the beautiful courtyard.

Emma Balter
Black pepper–crusted tuna tacos at Restaurant Martín

Restaurant Martín, which has an Award of Excellence, is also a great spot for outdoor dining. Come here for the creative American cuisine with Asian and other global touches, and the great-value, 150-selection wine list that's peppered with fun discoveries from lesser-known regions.

Go for drinks (and a movie)

Coyote Cantina is a colorful, kitschy rooftop bar connected to the longstanding fine-dining establishment Coyote Café. Structures aren't built high in Santa Fe, so a perch on the edge of the outdoor area is just high enough to peek at the mountains, but low enough to do some detailed people watching. Here, it's all about the tropical-inflected cocktails, and you can choose from several types of margaritas—yes, the turquoise margarita is actually turquoise-colored. There's also a full food menu, with bar snacks as well as entrées like enchiladas and tacos.

Violet Crown, an independent movie theater group, opened a location in Santa Fe's booming Railyard District in 2015. It has since become a hub of activity, not only for its screenings but also for the food and beverage options. Alongside great burgers, hot dogs and nachos, among other genuinely tasty movie-going fare, there's an extensive list of craft beers by the bottle, can and on tap, 90 percent of them from New Mexico.

To get more of a grasp on the state's brews, head to Draft Station, where all of the beer offerings are from New Mexico, and continue your explorations from a seat on the patio overlooking the plaza.

Venture out

Rancho de Chimayó is well worth the 40-minute drive north from Santa Fe to the town of Chimayó, where this institution has been serving traditional New Mexican fare since 1965. Everything here is authentic and bursting with flavor and spice, with dishes like chile relleno, posole, flautas, tacos, enchiladas and everything in between. Make sure to try the delicious, puffy sopaipillas, which are served stuffed with meat, beans, rice, chile, cheese and guacamole, or simply drizzled with honey.

Emma Balter
Huevos rancheros served with both red and green chile at Tesuque Village Market

But my absolute favorite place in the Santa Fe area is Tesuque Village Market, just outside of town. An unassuming, colorful shack seemingly in the middle of nowhere off I-84, this spot has the vibe and service that instantly make you want to be a regular. I come here mostly for breakfast or brunch to wolf down a plate of huevos rancheros, which I order "Christmas," meaning with both red and green chiles. A regular's tip: The homemade granola sold in the small adjoining shop is the best I've ever had. I always stash as many jars as I can in my suitcase.

Next on my Santa Fe to-dine list: Coyote Café, Fire & Hops, Shohko Café, Café Pasqual's, the Pantry, the Compound, Sazón …

You can follow Emma Balter on Twitter, at twitter.com/emmabalter, and Instagram, at instagram.com/emmacbalter

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