If your idea of dinner consists of an appetizer, entrée and dessert served at a quiet corner table accompanied by the strains of something that sounds suspiciously like elevator music, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover a very different atmosphere at Chef James Campbell Caruso’s new restaurant, Taberna La Boca. The Spanish music’s handclaps and toque guitar are almost overtaken by the collective sounds of voices and laughter. People are gathered around a large community table just inside the entrance where the doors are flung open, blurring the lines between inside and outside. Some sit, some stand and everyone eats. Even your mother would have to admit that here, eating with your hands is proper etiquette.
“I hate the ‘fine dining’ concept, and I don’t like entrées,” says Chef James when I ask him about the concept behind Taberna. “We wanted to have a traditional tapas bar like you find in every corner of Spain and bring that to our community. It’s almost like a travel experience—when you come here it’s like you’ve gone somewhere else.” In Spain, tapas evolved as practical snacks to accompany the drinks in taverns. Thin slices of bread or meat were used by sherry drinkers in Andalusia to cover their glasses and keep the fruit flies away. Eventually tapas became a way to increase alcohol sales, since the salty ham or chorizo snacks made tavern-goers thirstier.
The inspiration for Taberna came from Chef James’ travels to Spain. There, the streets are lined with tapas bars, and the idea is to hop from one to another, always with a group of friends—your tapeña—eating and drinking along the way. “Each house has their specialty. You go to one specifically for the fried fish, the next for the razor clams and the third has really good tortilla española,” Chef James explains. The hop starts late, around 10 p.m. when the streets explode with people, and groups of friends hang out together eating and drinking until three in the morning.
The community feel of the Spanish tapas bars is what Chef James loves best about the culinary scene in Spain—and what he wants to share with Santa Fe. He says, “In Spain, they’re so passionate about the food and the ingredients and the history and the cooking style, but it’s almost secondary to the space and the social way to gather and eat and share food and wine with your friends.”
Although Chef James’ other tapas restaurant, La Boca, is similar, Taberna presents a more casual, communal dining experience. The food is simpler than at La Boca and more focused on traditional-style tapas. The physical space at Taberna is also different from La Boca. Chef James took a cue from La Boca’s tightly spaced tables, which encouraged conversation and sharing between tables, but added a long, 12-seat bar and big community table where people can gather and crowd in. Want to talk to someone at the other end of the table? Just get up, walk over and continue eating and drinking. There’s never a need to wait for food: There are cold tapas on the bar available to order as soon as you walk in. This is definitely a bit of Spain in Santa Fe, a call out to the Basque country’s pintxos (tapas speared with toothpicks) bars, where your bill is tabulated by how many toothpicks have collected on your plate. Chef James says, “My concept is: You’re here, let’s start eating!”
Taberna represents no less than a coup against the status quo of dining in Santa Fe. The idea of a single big entrée is giving way to smaller portions that everyone shares. Chef James, who has been nominated for the James Beard Award five times, points out that those in Santa Fe’s innovative culinary scene have been quick to respond to the tapas concept. Our city now has four restaurants focusing on tapas, including El Farol, where James was once executive chef. Since opening in September, Taberna has been full almost every night. Says James, “When I first started La Boca, I had some critics tell me I was just jumping on the trend of small plates. And I said, ‘It’s not a trend, it’s a revolution!’ It’s changing the way we really want to eat in the US.” The price point is low, and the diner is in control; you can choose several tapas and a bottle of wine or just have a glass with a three-dollar tapa during happy hour.
This revolution extends to wine. While La Boca serves wine from France, Italy and Spain, Taberna focuses solely on Spanish wine, with great emphasis placed on sherry. The only wine you’ll drink here is wine you’d find in a Spanish tapas bar. Due to the high quality but inexpensive price of most Spanish wines, this is music to a wine lover’s ears. And if you think sherry is an old lady’s sweet afterdinner drink, Chef James will soon change your mind. One of his first trips to Spain took him to sherry country and the seaside town of Jerez, part of the sherry triangle and one of three towns where sherry legally can be made. “There’s something magical about that area. The sherries smell like they bottled the air in Jerez, this real salty, briny, fresh seafood and sea foam scent that you find in fino sherries, the real fresh, light sherries.”
James was one of four chefs nominated to compete in the Sherry Council of America’s Copa Jerez International Food and Sherry Pairing Competition, and listening to him talk about sherry makes me long for his fantastic gambas a la plancha (shrimp with garlic, lemon and olive oil seared on the flat iron grill) or the mariscada verde (shellfish stew with garlic, Albariño, mussels and clams). Many of the tapas served at Taberna are prepared with Spanish wine, like the champiñones al Jerez, a plate of different mushrooms sautéed in fino sherry. This is, of course, the way to drink sherry; alongside tapas, the fresh, salty, tangy wines shine.
Sherry comes in several styles meant for several different types of food, as Chef James will explain to you. There are four major styles, and all of sherry making comes down to trying to create a fino, that fresh, light sherry that is perfect for seafood. “The sherry has a layer of yeast growing on it that protects it from oxidation. Every other sherry down the line occurs because something went wrong with the fino and the yeast died. So they’re all happy accidents.” As the wine ages and oxidizes more, you are left with amontillados, olorosos and cream sherries, which are progressively richer and sweeter, with dried fruit, raisin and nutty tones, better for pairing with dessert. At the end of the line is Pedro Ximénez, a super-sweet, super-rich sherry that’s so thick you can order it at Taberna poured over ice cream!
If you don’t immediately get addicted to sherry, there are some other amazing Spanish wines on the list, all reasonably priced. A friend and I ordered the 2011 Louro do Bolo from Valdeorras, a blend of Godello and Treixadura, two grapes from the Galicia region in northwest Spain. This wine is comparable to Chardonnay, with bright citrus fruit, buttery overtones and a toasty oak character.
All this points to another of Taberna’s revolutionary qualities, which is its versatility. The restaurant transforms into a café at lunch, with coffee and delicious bocadillos, little sandwiches of rosemary ham, pork shoulder or ahi tuna salad. Tapas are served until 11 p.m., which is great news for Santa Fe’s late-night diners whose options have been, to date, somewhat limited. Chef James also plans to hold educational classes about Spanish cuisine and sherry. In his opinion, added knowledge of food and wine serves to enhance the enjoyment of them. Of course it’s more fun to drink sherry at Taberna, where you can look across the bar and see an Amontillado aging in cask, a gift from the folks at Bodegas Hidalgo, one of the most well-respected Sherry producers in Spain.
For Chef James, food and the sense of community it brings to people are a way of life. As he says, “In Spain, everybody’s a chef. There’s a real camaraderie, fraternity. It’s not an obsession with food, it’s just so ingrained that they don’t even think of it. To them it’s like breathing, it’s like, why wouldn’t you enjoy every single meal?”
Viva Taberna La Boca!
Taberna La Boca is located at 125 Lincoln Avenue in Santa Fe (just down the alley from La Boca). It’s open nightly for dinner from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Hora feliz (happy hour) is 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Lunch hours are Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 505.988.7102. labocasf.com.
Story by Erin Brooks; photos by Douglas Marriam