Before Marja Martin was the catering maven of Santa Fe, she spent evenings in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, listening to the crooning song “Cucurrucucú Paloma” at a tiny bar. The ballad tells of a broken-hearted man whose mourning sounds like a dove. It’s a far cry from the bright, vibrant restaurant that would later borrow its name from the tune, but Paloma hails from authentic nights like these.
Marja only opened the Santa Fe Railyard-adjacent Paloma in July, but the restaurant has already inspired a following. Marja says diners frequently tell her, “Santa Fe needed this.” Indeed, Paloma has found a sweet spot: It draws inspiration from traditional Mexican ingredients and flavors—a rarity in a town smothered in New Mexican cuisine. The crave-able fare walks the fine line between fatty and fresh, and the price point settles between taco trucks and high-end restaurants. Both mature diners and millennials eager for a night out in the pricey capital city appreciate that balance. “We want Paloma to be a once- or twice-a-week restaurant, not a special-occasion restaurant,” Marja says. That Paloma has so gracefully taken off on the winds of the Santa Fe culinary scene comes as a result of a decades-long journey.
Marja grew up going to the Dallas farmers’ market with her mother, “before going to the farmers’ market was a thing,” she says. Her parents encouraged her to pursue her bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately for her well-meaning parents, the budding foodie landed in New Orleans, where the city’s culinary charms only cemented her passion. After culinary school and stints in San Francisco and Washington D.C., Marja landed in Santa Fe, where she ran Marja Custom Catering for two decades.
As the Drury Plaza Hotel’s Eloisa hovered between catering bookings and an unfinished restaurant space, Chef John Sedlar enlisted Marja and her commissary kitchen. In turn, Marja called upon Nathan Mayes, who moonlighted in the catering business after day jobs at The Betterday Coffee Shop and Arroyo Vino.
Although Nathan has been described as a wunderkind, the 31-year-old has been around his family’s restaurants and food companies since childhood. “I think I got my first habanero seed in my eye at 5,” he says. Growing up in Texas, in his pescaterian family, he remembers the house smelling like roasted poblanos and pinto beans simmering on the stove. As a teenager, for his first job outside his father’s restaurants, he remained in the culinary arts, starting at the bottom of the kitchen’s chain of command, but a new appreciation for the technique and artistry of cuisine. His first job in Santa Fe was at Coyote Café with the late Eric DiStefano.
As Marja and Nathan worked elbow by elbow on catering gigs, they began brainstorming a restaurant. Although she enjoyed the challenge of making someone else’s vision come to life, after two decades in the catering business, Marja yearned for a new challenge and a place she could make her own. She found it in an unassuming building that most recently held Swiss Bistro & Bakery and 401 Fine Neighborhood Dining, at the corner of Guadalupe Street and Montezuma Avenue. She bedecked the interior with leather banco seating with a fiesta-striped back and lounge-worthy pillows. A menagerie of Mexican tapestries hangs in the space, several of which harken from Marja’s own buying trips to Oaxaca, Mexico. The from-the-source authenticity infuses not only the space, but the food.
“That scratch-made element is everything,” Nathan says. Although the restaurant’s inspiration point was tacos and beer—two things former Texans Marja and Nathan both hanker for—each item has a surprising wholesomeness. “Everyone has to feed the greasy demon,” Nathan says. “But we want to feel good about what we’ve eaten.”
That starts with the tortillas. Paloma sources corn from Masienda, a company earning raves from top chefs in other food-centric cities like New York and San Francisco for purveying landrace corn from Oaxaca. With authentic corn in hand, Paloma’s cooks ground masa in house and press tortillas. At Paloma, the ubiquitous basket of chips gets a charmingly homespun edge with hand-torn chips and queso made with real cheese (instead of some space-age lookalike), house-made roasted tomato or chile verde salsa, or guacamole. Set a stone’s throw from the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, Nathan incorporates local ingredients when possible. He thoughtfully sources meats. “There’s no mystery meat here,” he says.
Dishes have equal influence from Mexico and Nathan. Cauliflower tacos—one of several vegetarian offerings—take a Spanish turn, blending the subtle flavors of roasted cauliflower, briny olives, sweet golden raisins and Marcona almonds. The lamb barbacoa tacos skew Mediterranean with cumber lime, cojita and cilantro crema.
A technique convert, Nathan also breaks out the best methods to refine the staples. Skirt steak for the fajitas is sous vide for 24 hours before it’s seared on the grill, keeping the meat wonderfully tender. The former pescaterian also has a deft hand with fish, preparing sea bass three ways: in ceviche, in tacos and as an entree, where it’s grilled with roasted tomatoes and peppers, green olive, preserved lemon and fried caper in a riot of color on the plate. Nathan begins most dishes, and Marja refines. “Nathan’s contribution has been irreplaceable. I wouldn’t have done this without him,” she says.
Savory dishes are only one element of the restaurant’s crave-worthiness. Paloma serves its take on the city’s required cocktail—the margarita—with El Portico Blanco tequila, lime and raw agave. For Marja, a Negroni Oaxaca was a must-have, since she relished her days sipping the Mexican take on the Italian classic in Mexico. Paloma’s version features Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Campari and Punt e Mes Vermouth.
The restaurant’s Instagram presence—laden with lively pictures of local produce and fresh tortillas rolling off press (which make you wish the social medium had Smell-o-vision)—connected pastry chef Irma Ruiz with the restaurant. After Irma and her parents fled north from her native Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to escape the border city’s violence, she dove into Santa Fe Community College’s culinary program. She began the program in August and by October had earned her first job, under Chef Andrew Cooper, then at Four Seasons Resort at Rancho Encantado Santa Fe. The dessert ingénue sped through her schooling and served as pastry chef at the luxury resort for several years. The chance to make the desserts she grew up with—albeit with new tastes to fit her American diners’ palates—drew her to Paloma.
Irma wields the whisk effortlessly in dishes like tres leches cake, which was finished this summer with peaches from Velarde and basil syrup. Traditional buñuelos (crispy disks of fried dough bathed in cinnamon sugar) sit jauntily on scoops of caramel ice cream with apple compote and candied pecans.
As entrees and desserts are dressed in the kitchen, Marja finds herself front of house for the first time in her career. She floats among tables, welcoming people she’s worked with for decades, finally in a place where she’s considered every detail.
Paloma is located at 401 S. Guadalupe St. in Santa Fe, 505.467.8624, palomasantafe.com.
Story by Ashley M. Biggers