There are magical occurrences unfolding at a new restaurant in El Prado just outside of Taos, New Mexico. Some may say the mere process of opening a restaurant requires more than a little razzle dazzle. Whatever the alchemy, Common Fire, which opened in June, is drawing believers—and owner Andy Lynch is the wizard on the mountain.
Those mountains are alluring. Pass through the town of Taos and continue to State Road 150, leading to the Taos Ski Valley, and they take on an eerie, cinematic power. Common Fire, with its ember orange door, comes up quickly, nestled in a compound of condos and tennis courts. Many restaurants have kitchens open to view cooks flipping food in sauté pans, but at Common Fire, cooking and dining take place in the same room. Invitingly, what catches your eye as you enter is a stretch credenza with bottles of wine set out along its lacquered top as if you’re arriving at a party. Then, the hearth: a wood-fired oven ensconced in an alcove. Chef Andrew Horton, commandingly tall, stands at an expediting table like a sea captain at the helm, surrounded by his crew of cooks. Stacked in the ready is a score of cast iron and black steel pans, delicate earthenware plates fired by a Taos artisan, and a cord of New Mexico pecan wood.
Wood and fire is the decorative and utilitarian motif of the attentively designed interior. Shou Sugi Ban, an ancient Japanese technique that preserves wood by charring with fire then finishing with oil, is used along one wall in a mosaic of boards blazed in various textures and hues—from black to grayish blue—in what amounts to an art installation. “With the exception of the vigas,” Andy Lynch says, “the entire restaurant and its furniture were constructed by Cisco Velarde, a local craftsman and hand-builder.” The chef’s table, kitchen-counter high, sits a baker’s dozen as it extends perpendicularly from the expediting table. There, diners look into the maw of the oven. An aisle of tables faces two long, parallel benches. There’s a large, shaded patio with classic one-piece wooden picnic tables, and a bocce court.
“Restaurants mean something to me. I wanted to create one where I could host this community, and friends can gather, move tables together, call across the room. Contrarily,” Andy adds, “one gentleman told me, ‘Thank you for a place where I’m comfortable eating by myself.’ We’re open straight through from noon to 9 p.m. If you’re just off a hike and its 3:15, come to Common Fire,” he says. “We foster that.”
On and off for 30 years, Andy Lynch, 62, has lived in Northern New Mexico, working as a sommelier, restaurant manager, writer, distributor, fine wine consultant, as well as mentoring many who remain or have moved on. Andy, his wife, Annette, and their son moved on, too—traveling, seeking, settling in California. Opportunities to return to Taos coincided with a percolating business plan. “We were in Los Angeles for eight years. We all have addresses which amount to interludes and that was one. I had to decide, at my age, where to end up––Taos. Fortunately, Annette agreed.” The property in El Prado, offered by a friend to “do whatever he wanted” with was a kind of neutral space where Andy and Annette could imprint their concept. “Now we’re in a little row of really good restaurants: Medley, Sabrosa, ACEQ.” Not without some incredulity, he adds, “And, we’re getting comically positive feedback.”
Sitting on a very sturdy table, the 4,000-pound Le Panyol oven, the size of an igloo for two, is made from organic white clay and brick—which are considered the best materials for such ovens—from the Côtes du Rhône in France. “It takes real commitment to cook with wood,” Chef Andrew says, in a voice like a rolling boulder. “I’m classically trained, and my background is gas ranges and sauté. Working with a wood-fired oven was not in my wheelhouse. The challenge is hearth management, controlling the temperature and having enough space in the oven when orders pile up.” During service, the oven’s interior averages near 750 degrees. After hours, the wood is spread out to cool. The bakers arrive early the next morning to clean out the ash, but the oven retains enough heat to bake off baguettes, rolls, home-loaf and crackers. Before lunch, the cooks come in and rekindle the fire. “I calculated we use about $5-dollars-worth of wood a day,” Andrew says, “That’s how thermally efficient the oven is.”
The enticing menu and wine list, while small, feel infinite with the breadth of options. Each item has been purposely chosen and scrutinized, no more so than by Andy Lynch. “I asked a diner, ‘How were the Beans in Broth?’ ‘Sublime,’ he said. ‘They were meant to be,’ I told him.” And that’s what the dish is: beans, broth and sublime. Once you’ve eaten the 100 or so small, dense, velvety ‘yellow Indian woman’ beans from Napa Valley’s Rancho Gordo, dispense with the spoon and drink the last drams of health-some broth from the bowl ($7). Chase it with a glass of Willamette Valley Gamay Noir, all gumption and lightness. Served on a house-baked roll brushed with butter, the roast beef sandwich, sliced as thin as the blades of grass the cattle were fed on, is mounded so high it topples. Even capped with Gruyere and horseradish cream, the dish feels unheavy, an indication of fine ingredients, well-prepared ($11).
“A lot of people mention the number of pork dishes on our menu,” says Andrew, sporting a baseball cap from Kyzer Farm of Albuquerque noted for its slow, natural-growth animals. “They produce the best pork I’ve come across. I toured the farm, and those are happy pigs.” The priciest plate ($23) is a straight-ahead Kyzer bone-in chop with applesauce and slaw. Bossam—a Korean dish made with shredded pork butt; ssam, a traditional spicy unami sauce; and locally made kimchi—is served on cabbage leaves, taco-style ($9). If not Riesling, pair its piquancy with a glass of sake.
There are choice vegetarian options like hearth-roasted broccolini with an egg cooked easy, the yoke creating a rich sauce ($9); and salads of beets and peaches; a kale Caesar; or burrata and melon—and for the kid in us all, Aunt Bernie’s Mac and Cheese ($10). “My mother and my late sister were named Bernadette,” Andy, who grew up in the Bronx, explains. “Both known as Bernie, both made this dish, and so do we.” A pint of craft brew or a glass of South African Chenin Blanc sound like a match? If the USDA did a pyramid for wine, Lynch’s list would be its model. Forming the base are many single-digit prices. A $7 chance gets a glass of Furmint, a Hungarian white that tastes of stone and spice, as dry as a hobo’s elbow; or a rosé from Rioja, suggestive of tart raspberries ($6). At the apex, there’s a double magnum (four bottles-worth and three digits) of Barbaresco from Piedmont.
The lynchpin of Common Fire is their mother dough. “Making plans to start this business,” Andy says, “it occurred to me, ‘I’m moving to Taos based on a loaf of bread.’” Andy thoroughly studied the art and science of dough, with acknowledgement to Chad Robertson, the James Beard-winning creator of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. “We use a natural starter that I’ve had going for 16 years and drove here from Los Angeles, but the revelations from Tartine were invaluable. Our pastry room is temple-like and our head baker, Kate Ingles, is its goddess.” With a hint of Little Shop of Horrors in his voice, he says, “She actually takes the starter home every night, feeds it, and brings it back in the morning.”
Starter, a culture of flour, wild yeast and water, is a natural way to produce rise in dough. The resulting bread is more flavorful and easier to digest. As a living thing, starter needs looking after; one feeds it by adding flour and water. “We have a name for our starter,” Andy playfully admits, “Chad.” Their hat trick is unveiling the dough into flavorful flatbreads, toothsome and touched by crisp char, crowned with complementary ingredients like prosciutto from La Quercia, an artisanal producer of cured meats in Iowa, house-made ricotta, garlic confit, caramelized red onion, roasted eggplant, or gyro-style “beef/lamb” with feta and tzatziki. Even a sorcerer’s apprentice can make these vanish ($9-$13). Kate’s desserts are the glass slipper of this Cinderella eatery—primal heat transformed into cool fare in fresh, local fruit tarts; an infused pot de crème; or creations that she seems to magically conjure ($6-$7).
During a photo gathering with his crew, a shared fervor made it clear that Common Fire is a perfect metaphoric name for the spell cast by Lynch. Standing together, the bearded Horton, head and shoulders taller than the well-postured Lynch, evoke Hagrid and Dumbledore, not merely in stature, but fealty.
Magic dwells in such dual realms as illusion and belief, imagination and performance, nature and art, and in multifaceted––common––norms, like wild yeast, bubbles in wine, or the assemblage of talent.
Common Fire is located at 88 State Highway 150 (the Ski Valley Road) in El Prado, just north of the town of Taos. 505.803.9113. taoscommonfire.com.
Story by James Selby