In early January, Modern General, the store and eatery in Santa Fe owned by chef/farmer/innovator Erin Wade, sent out an enticingly cryptic announcement stating they were launching “a new wellness concept…sweet and savory…a twist on everyone’s favorite childhood breakfast.” As one might guess, considering the kind of playfully fundamental cuisine Erin brings to salads at Vinaigrette, her latest tantalizing concoctions are thoroughly Modern General.
These days, Erin is bi-Southwestern, splitting time between Austin, Texas, where she’s opened her third Vinaigrette in a trifecta with Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Late on a Saturday afternoon in February, it’s serendipitous to catch a glimpse of her in Modern General. Having given a lead cook a vacation during the “slow time,” she’s at the stove because the place is slammed. “It’s been like this all day,” says Robin Schoen, long-time maven and manager for Wade enterprises, referring to the line at the counter and the full tables. “So Erin jumped into the kitchen.” During a lull, Erin greets guests. Picture a young Katherine Hepburn ever so charmingly disheveled. “I don’t do the cooking regularly, but every once in a while, it’s good to check in,” Erin says, with an ebullient smile. “I didn’t expect to see people! My apron is covered in batter.”
Batter up! Erin’s hit a homerun with creations she calls “Modcakes™.” Made from several varieties of heritage flours, the cakes are topped with a variety of classic and unique ingredients, sauced and garnished in imaginative combinations, complexly textured, at once satisfying and provocative. Reasonably priced, sensibly portioned, a single serving stays the stomach, though any hiker worth her boots could easily handle a duet of dishes. “We’re super excited about savory pancakes,” Erin says. “Pancakes make any day special.”
In 2015, Wade gutted a sow’s ear building sharing the parking lot with Vinaigrette-Santa Fe, raised high the roof beams, perforated the walls with lofty windows, and opened Modern General. An aierie interior accented in a David Hockney palette, with tall shelving accessed by rolling ladders, it’s both gathering place and respite, a welcoming browse amid every stripe of handcraft and notion for home, garden, kitchen and office. From the beginning, counter service offered leisurely or quick-fix nourishment by way of smoothies, coffees, teas, toasts, wholesome broths and soups, sundry pastries, along with sustaining breakfast and lunch “comestibles,” as advertised in block lettering painted on an outer wall. “When we opened,” Erin says, “the focus was on the retail side, curating beautiful, functional items that last, while offering a community feel, and a place where people could read a book or do some work. Making simple delicious food of our mothers and grandmothers was always part of the experience.” Erin is disarmingly articulate, and what seems to be breezy conversation is energized with earnest wellness and environmental philosophies. “Our goal all along,” she says, “was to make this more than a store.”
Over the last year, Erin’s been searching for a way to expand and enhance Modern General’s menu. “I wanted to find something that worked for morning and day-long, a strategy that wouldn’t be a competing business with Vinny,” she explains. (Even a restaurant can have a nickname.) “Also, I wanted something Americana, like apple pie, with a human heritage. Food connects us to memories and emotions. That’s when I began researching pancakes.”
Ground flours cooked on hot rocks date as far back as the Stone Age and appear in multiple cuisines on every continent, but the American colonist flipped over hoecakes, flapjacks, Johnny cakes, griddlecakes, slapjacks made from buckwheat or cornmeal. “I’ve been alarmed at the flattening,” Erin says without irony, “of experience through technology. The hybridized mutant yields from super-fast growing wheat, for example. I want to get people excited about flour. Organic, small-farmed, stone-ground flours retain the flavor and wholesome benefits of the germ, the bran and healthy oils. All of that gets removed from commercial flour.” Modern General has a stone mill and grinds low-gluten, white Sonora wheat in-house, and the breads they sell are baked with house-milled flour. To ensure against cross contamination of gluten and non-gluten, some pre-ground flours are sourced from artisanal mills, because removing the heavy stones each time they grind to clean them would be impractical. “We do use all-purpose flour for lighter, fluffier sweet cakes,” Erin says. “But we don’t add sugar. Sweetness comes only from the toppings.”
Erin is a roll-up-your-sleeves, self-described “home cook” and farmer. “What I know, I’ve learned on the Internet, research and from doing it. I don’t know enough to get into trouble,” she says, with a self-deprecating frankness. “And, in a lot of ways, we don’t get bogged down by expectations. I’m a complete outsider, but I see a lot of chefs feeding egos over bellies. I like simple, playful flavors, rustic and elemental, nevertheless, with complexity, like a good stew or soup. I always say to our team, ‘Take something out.’ I really analyze the recipes we develop.”
How do the coaster-sized Modcakes stack up? Divided into Savorycakes™ and Sweetcakes™ ($6.50-$8.00) there are four dishes in each category. Of the former, the one closest to home is the savory Green Chile Cilantro Corncakes. You get a distinct taste of corn which the other ingredients seem to bolster: an egg up on top, scallions and jack cheese within, dappled with lime crema and red chile maple syrup. Savory and syrup? “Our palates,” Erin says, “are becoming more sophisticated and global, and that’s expressed in the play of sweet and savory, like corn itself.” Her Supercakes are inspired by Japanese Okonomiyaki pancakes and, similarly, Vietnamese bánh bèo, a savorous delivery system of vegetables, charged with kale, cabbage, scallions, seeded with flax, moistened by dashi—the broth base of miso soups—and heightened with aioli and okonomi, which is akin to Worcestershire.
Red Pepper Sonoracakes, layered with chive cream and blanketed with Scottish lox is a composition that seems as classic as blini and caviar. The Prosciutto and Robiola cheese are corncakes with a fresh corn slap-in.
“When we add something to the cake while it’s cooking on the griddle before we flip it, we call that a ‘slap-in,’ because you flip it and slap it,” Chef Erin blithely clarified. The cakes are then spiced with horseradish kefir—fermented milk similar to yogurt—and a drizzle of dark maple syrup.
Under the Sweetcakes category are spicy, snappy Carrot Ginger Sonoracakes lathered with buttercream, invitingly accompanied by sautéed maple pecans. “Because your wedding cake always wanted to be a flapjack” is the descriptor of Coconutcakes, and here, too, if you’re spoony for buttercream is a dollop along with some lime-passion fruit curd. The Lemoncakes have lemon curd gently folded into their batter, delivering a zesty, creamy texture, “smothered with humble blueberry compote.”
Acai Teffcakes is the quiet child. Teff, a gluten-free grain originating from Ethiopia, the size of a poppy seed, has a toothsome, nutty flavor not unlike buckwheat. It packs a nutritional punch of protein, calcium and iron, and plays well with spices. Tastefully mixed with acai—a super-food berry—cinnamon and vanilla, with toppings of coconut oil and maple syrup, it’s the most focused of all. As a fine wine may demand attention, the mostly unadorned Teffcakes invite you to masticate slowly, employing teeth, tongue and palate in the way they’re meant, gnashing and tumbling food into a final knit, revealing myriad delicious flavors. You feel your body sigh.
“They told Marconi, wireless was a phony,” goes the Gershwin tune. In the fall of 2008, when Erin Wade opened her first Vinaigrette salad bistro in Santa Fe, there were plenty of doubters. It was the same old cry when Modern General launched. That’s how people are. When asked how she dealt with the skepticism, for an instant, the air goes out of Erin. Just as quickly, though, she lifts her shoulders up. “I wonder what gave me the balls to not listen. Who knows what I’m doing,” she says. “But I believe, if you’re coming from the right place, with a joyful confidence––beyond you––something lovely can be created.”
Who’s got the last laugh, now?
Story by James Selby. Photos by Kitty Leaken.