(Story by Ashley M. Biggers / Images by Douglas Merriam)
At Los Poblanos, where heritage and innovation are continually held in balance, sometimes, the greatest change comes from returning to the past rather than pressing toward the future.
Though much has changed at the inn and farm, much is staying the same, including Chef Jonathan Perno’s guidance and his devotion to defining Rio Grande cuisine.
Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm isn’t a place you just visit. It’s a place you have a relationship with. As a Duke City resident, I’ve gotten to know Los Poblanos through many seasons. I’ve cut lavender when its organic fields blush purple, wandered among its adobes and farm buildings in the hush of winter, and enjoyed field-to-fork cuisine as the fruit trees blossomed. With every visit, I turn the page on another facet of its story. That’s truer now than ever as the inn and farm starts a new chapter—one with twice the number of guest rooms, a new restaurant, Campo, and cocktails to add to its toast-worthy wine and beer menu, all done with Los Poblanos’ signature integrity of place and purpose.
Touring the property with Landscape Manager Wes Brittenham this summer, I saw how Los Poblanos’ agricultural past weaves seamlessly with its present. Great food starts in the fields, but at Los Poblanos, crops grow everywhere. Especially now that the property has begun cultivating more multi-functional plants that check all the boxes: edible, attractive and habitat and pollinator friendly. Herb gardens sprout outside the renovated 1930s dairy barn that houses Campo’s dining areas and expansive kitchen. A fig tree, its branches heavy with teardrop shaped fruit, edges one path in the recreational gardens designed by seminal landscape architect Rose Greely and still fed by the property’s acequias. Elsewhere on the grounds, black walnut trees drop green fruit, which the enterprising kitchen and bar staff has used to create a house amaro (an Italian bitter consumed as an after-dinner digestif). Those are just a few examples of what’s beyond the dedicated hoop houses and garden rows overflowing with onions, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, the latter of which were planted at the bar staff’s request as they create their own field-to-glass creations.
Wes, a lifelong backyard farmer who’s spent his more than 40-year career in commercial horticulture, admires the cultivation circle that closes daily here. “We grow the plants; the farmers harvest the produce, and we can eat that harvest at dinner that day,” he says. “I love being a bigger part of the whole.”
Today’s farmers, chefs and innkeepers are only the latest to shepherd this acreage along the Rio Grande bosque. Pre-Puebloan peoples inhabited these lands, followed by settlers from Puebla, Mexico, whose nickname—“Poblanos”—gave the swath its name. In the early 1700s, the land folded into the Elena Gallegos land grant, stretching from the riverside cottonwood forests to the Sandia Mountains’ foothills. The Armijo family ran cattle there, followed by the Simms family, who remain noteworthy agricultural innovators in the state’s history. Congressman Albert Simms, and his wife, Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms, lived in the farm’s historic residence and operated a dairy and experimental farm. Their Guernsey and Holstein cows helped build the state’s dairy industry. In 1932, the Simms also commissioned architect John Gaw Meem, who is responsible for shaping the Southwest’s architectural identity, to renovate the ranch house and design La Quinta Cultural Center.
In 1976, the Simms family split the ranch and sold it to Armin and Penny Rembe, and Armin’s sister Victoria Rembe Walker. The Rembe family has been its stewards since. They reunited the 25 acres in 1997, and, to preserve the historic property, converted the home in which they raised their children into an inn and brought La Quinta back to life for public events like weddings. Armin and Penny still reside on the property, and you might spot them chatting with the farmers or guiding the occasional garden tour. The inn has grown over the decades, most recently via the addition of more than 20 newly built guest rooms under the guidance of Armin and Penny’s son Matt, who now serves as executive director.
Unveiled in fall 2017, the field rooms and suites mirror the adjacent dairy building’s style, with pitched tin roofs and white stuccoed walls. The rooms stretch like fingers into the lavender fields, where the property grows Lavandula Grosso by the tens of thousands to distill its essential oils into a body product line of lotions and balms. The 1930s dairy barn has a second life housing a vast, open kitchen, dining area, bar and farm shop, filled with the farm’s lavender line, food products (like jars of Chimayo red chile and pints of gelato) and home decor. Though much has changed at the inn and farm, much is staying the same, including Chef Jonathan Perno’s guidance and his devotion to defining Rio Grande cuisine.
Originally from Albuquerque, Chef Jonathan, now a multi-time James Beard Award semi-finalist chef, has worked in notable kitchens across the United States and at Los Poblanos for a decade. For him, it all starts with the farmers. “I trust the farmers. That’s what I’ve always done, and that’s what I should do,” he says of the relationship between chef and grower. Beyond the ingredients available out of his kitchen’s back door, Jonathan also sources from more than a dozen local growers and purveyors, from Villa Myriam Coffee to Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory. He finds integrity in honoring the other’s work by honoring the product, be it a specific variety of tomato from Amyo Farms or meat from Shepherd’s Lamb.
At Los Poblanos, where heritage and innovation are continually held in balance, sometimes, the greatest change comes from returning to the past rather than pressing toward the future. “These days, the ancient is cutting edge,” Wes says. “The things that were done centuries ago were done the right way.” That particularly applies to indigenous plants, which Wes and Jonathan are both avid students of. The latter has encouraged Los Poblanos to return to more native edible plants, like purslane and amaranth, even cultivating experimental crops at his private home to bring his lessons to Los Poblanos. He’s found that native plants don’t want to be restrained or helicopter parented. “They don’t want to be controlled,” he says. “They want to just be.”
Chef Jonathan introduces modern palates to these unfamiliar ingredients by using them at their best and making the ingredients integral to the dish. He picks purslane, for example, when it’s young and produces less mucous—usually a palate turnoff. When he incorporates it in a dish, it’s far more than a garnish. “If you’re going to give something to somebody, you should really give it to them, and in its natural form,” the chef says. The latest indigenous plant growing at Los Poblanos is epazote, a South American herb often considered a weed in New Mexico, which Jonathan soon plans to incorporate into beans (its traditional use), soups and broths.
A few non-New Mexico ingredients are cropping up, too. Los Poblanos is the only site in New Mexico partnering with Dan Barber, of notable farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, on a seed-sharing program through his Row 7 Seed Company. Row 7 sent seeds of their selection to sites across all 50 states, asking the farmers and chefs to cultivate those plants and report back on their production and the produce’s flavor. The plants went in just this year, so the results aren’t in quite yet.
What is for certain is Los Poblanos’s new full liquor license, which went into effect in late June. Dylan Storment, who’s also spent a decade at the property in roles ranging from event planner to sommelier, is leading the bar program. Planning started in January, when the bar staff put in planting orders for berries, tomatoes, herbs, peppers, cucumbers and zucchinis, not just for garnishes, but to create infusions, syrups and bitters, like the signature black walnut amaro. All these mix with top-shelf spirits, many from New Mexico’s craft spirit makers like KGB Spirits and Santa Fe Spirits.
Although in its early days, a few cocktails have risen as diner and guest favorites, including a variation on a Manhattan that uses achiote spice that echoes the flavors of a spiced ribeye on the menu, and a margarita with lavender syrup (of course), orange liqueur and agave syrup. The Lavender ’99 is another signature. Inspired by the French 75, the cocktail mixes crème de violette liqueur with Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Gin, lemon juice and sparkling wine from Gruet—all perfect ingredients to toast the best of New Mexico at one of the most authentic places in the state.
Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm is located at 4803 Rio Grande Blvd. N in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, 505.344.9297, lospoblanos.com.