My history with Taos goes back to the late 1980’s, when I was living in Sydney and working for a company that set up American-themed restaurants in that beautiful Australian city. Hearing of the popular new culinary trend that was sweeping the states called Southwestern cooking, we ventured to hop on the bandwagon and introduce the cuisine and concept Down Under. I found a chef consultant named Dan Hoyer who headed down to assist us in establishing the authenticity of the food, and Dan was from Taos.
As we hatched our plan to thrill the Aussie palates with all things New Mexican, Dan regaled me with tales of the beauty and history of the region while training me in the nuances of the spices–in particular the chiles that define this unique cookery. When I finally visited New Mexico to gather more information for the project, the beauty of the state, and specifically Taos, was everything Dan had described and more.
Jump ahead to 1993 and my return stateside. Through the next almost two decades, Taos played a happy part in my career. I helped open a cooking school there, was involved in the opening festivities for El Monte Sagrado Resort and spent many a wine-and-food–fueled night at my buddy Joseph Wrede’s groundbreaking Joseph’s Table Restaurant. Some of my favorite people on the planet live in Taos and I always love to make the trek.
I had started to hear good things about a new restaurant called The Gorge Bar & Grill, which opened on the Taos Plaza in the space that for decades housed Ogilvie’s, so I jumped at an offer from my editor to go interview the chef and spend the night at the historic Taos Inn.
On my first visit to Taos, the town was described as being “like Santa Fe was 30 years ago,” and I’m always surprised to observe that even almost 20 years later, though Taos has certainly grown, it is pretty much the same. Still very laid-back, the spirit of Easy Rider Dennis Hopper is ever-evident in the rhythm of the populace. Its charm is its relaxed aura. Donald Rumsfeld and Julia Roberts aside, Taos is safe from becoming too cosmopolitan too soon. How would this new restaurant fit in to the chronicles of her food landscape?
I meet with The Gorge chef Arik Zamora on one of those sunny winter afternoons when, though the wind is cold, you can tell that spring is dying to get here. The understated but stylish second-story dining room offers premier views of the Plaza as well as a big comfortable central bar and nicely designed dining areas that allow diners to choose what they are in the mood for: buzzy cocktail lounge or more sedate noshing. There’s a separate, private dining room that seats 30 and is soundproofed from the rest of the restaurant. I seem to recall that macramé planters were hanging everywhere in the previous restaurant and am glad they are gone; the renovation is charming.
Before Zamora joins me, I look over the large menu and am impressed with its span and fun sense of itself. The different areas of the menu are given clever titles, including a taco section called “It’s the Only Food Shaped Like a Smile” and a kiddy menu entitled “Gorge Tested, Mother Approved.” Desserts are listed at the top of the menu with a caption that warns, “Life is short…eat dessert first!” (I noticed this on another menu posted in town. Do Taoseños know something we don’t, and is Rumsfeld to blame?)
I am returning later that evening to dine, but our photographer Kate Russell is hovering to capture our conversation, and, lucky for me, food is to be part of the shoot. Though I don’t remember meeting Zamora before, he reminds me that we had met at The Compound, where he had worked most recently for more than 3 years.
“Tell me about your childhood,” I begin.
“I was born in Albuquerque and raised in Honolulu. My mother was a single mom and in the Air Force, so we moved around a lot. I lived in Korea for a time and also Japan when I was 10 and 11 years old.”
“Do you remember anything about the food there?” I ask.
“Oh yes, I remember the soba noodle bars and these vending machines that had all sorts of interesting food in them that I was curious to try.”
“How did you get into cooking?” I ask.
“My grandparents lived in Albuquerque, so when I was 19 I moved back there and went to UNM to study business and finance. I got a restaurant job to support myself but was always having to skip classes to fill in a shift in the kitchen. When I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I realized that I wanted to get a job that would keep me from going hungry. Working in a restaurant you never go hungry,” he finishes with a laugh.
“While figuring out where I wanted to live, I kind of wandered the country, going to college in Minnesota for a time and Washington State. I worked in a restaurant in Destin, Florida, before coming back to Albuquerque. I started at Seasons Rotisserie & Grill in Old Town, working there for four years, and also worked at the Artichoke Café for three years. I met my wife, Lisa, at Seasons where I first met Keith and Kevin Roessler, who own The Gorge.”
Zamora tells me the story of the Roessler brothers (he refers to them as K²) and their family who have been in the restaurant business for years. Their uncle, Roger Roessler, a pioneer in fine dining in Albuquerque now runs an acclaimed winery in Sonoma along with Keith and Kevin’s dad, Richard. A lengthy stint working under Mark Kiffin prepared Zamora for this, his first gig as Executive Chef. “I started out as a grill cook at The Compound but moved up to sous chef after four months. I was commuting from Albuquerque and working closely with Andy Nichols, Kiffin’s chef du cuisine. Lisa was GM at Seasons; I was spending more time in the kitchen than I was with my wife.”
Though he enjoyed his experience at The Compound, Zamora reached a burn-out phase of his cooking career and considered other options. “I felt the need to re-evaluate my career. I thought maybe I would work on the other side of the business as a food purveyor. We even considered a move to Denver, and then the offer to do The Gorge came along. Part of the deal was to have Lisa be the manager here. We jumped at the chance.”
“How much input did you have in the concept?” I ask.
“The Roessler twins bought the building and started to plan the renovations. They asked me what I thought the concept should be. Right away I said no fine dining. No cheese-covered New Mexico food. We agreed that we wanted a casual contemporary feel that covered all the bases. With our full bar menu, burgers, entrees, kids menu, and party menus we attract customers from different budgets and price points. I drew from all my cooking experience and incorporated dishes that include some of my favorite flavors and foods.
I compliment Arik on the design of the room. “We wanted to create an environment and menu that we would like. We designed it to have an upscale flair but be comfortable. No hokey, cheesy gimmicks. We all took part in the renovations. We were up here tearing down walls and painting and plastering.”
The Gorge opened on the 23rd of July last summer. “We opened over Fiesta Weekend and ran out of food in five hours. I think we served 700 meals that day. We restocked and opened the very next day.”
At this stage, food starts to arrive from the kitchen: amazing Buffalo chicken wings, seared ahi tuna and yummy bison sliders. We have to pause and wait to sample them until after they are captured on film. “I looked forward to the challenge of opening in Taos,” says Zamora. “It was tricky renovating a 30-year-old building, but the Roesslers let me design the kitchen I wanted. The kitchen is one hundred percent new.”
I ask him to compare the three towns he has worked in here in New Mexico. When I mention that the Santa Fe restaurant scene can be a bit crazy, Zamora chuckles, “Taos is just different crazy. And even though Albuquerque has a larger job pool to choose from with the college culinary program, I think the kitchen staff in Santa Fe restaurants have higher expectations placed on them. I think we had the best crew in town at The Compound. In Taos the pool is even smaller. Taos is like a mini-Santa Fe, just more laid back. It was hard adjusting to casual dining after The Compound and I did have to do a good amount of training with my cooks on technique. But I have assembled a great team. I believe that anybody can be a great cook as long as they have the will and passion.”
“Your signature dishes,” I ask. “I think the Ahi Tuna, our Spicy Green Chile Sirloin Stew, the sliders, and our wings–we have the best wings in the state. And people in Taos seem to love oysters more than in the other places I’ve worked, we sell up to a 12 dozen a day.”
When we finally get to sample the goodies, I agree. Judging from the dinner I was to enjoy later that night, including a plate of positively addicting Crispy Fried Green Beans, clearly Chef Zamora knows his cooking. And when I ask what it’s like to finally be working with his wife, he responds simply, “Lisa is awesome.”
So while Taos slowly expands, as El Monte continues to define its niche and Joseph Wrede hatches his next plan of attack, The Gorge starts its ascent into the culinary history books of this tranquil town. With Arik and Lisa at the helm, I think a new classic is born.
The Gorge Restaurant is located in the heart of the historic Taos Plaza at 103 East Plaza. 575.758.8866.
Story by John Vollertsen