A few years ago Oprah interviewed the author of a recent diet book called Eat When You’re Hungry. After hearing the author’s hypothesis, Oprah exclaimed, “If I only ate when I was hungry, just think of all the good meals I’d miss!” I couldn’t agree with her more. I think most foodies would concur that we eat when we’re hungry but also when we’re happy, sad, stressed, lonely, joyful, in love or just plain bored (and I am lucky to add “for a living” to the list).
Over the last 12 months I have found myself sitting down to dine for a multitude of reasons and in a variety of moods; covering the Santa Fe food beat is mostly a pleasurable experience. There have been a few hiccups here and there—I’m still surprised when hot food is served on cold plates, but I consider myself a fortunate boy. Many of my good friends are chefs, and our friendships are often played out over meals in their restaurants. What I love about our city, which I’ve dubbed “The City Deliciously Different,” is that when a meal is good, it’s often really good.
Here is a list of my top ten most memorable dishes. They are in no particular order of deliciousness but are ones I heartily encourage you to try. After yet another year of economic craziness—and, added to that, political lunacy—we all deserve a little edible love. As mothers across the globe urge when anythingmight be bothering you, “For God’s sake, eat something!” It is, indeed, a cure-all.
Chef Joseph Wrede describes his menu at the new (and hot!) Joseph’s as vegetable-centric, meaning there is a conscious effort to celebrate that vast realm of ingredients but raise them above the salad and side dish status. A luscious case in point is the Mustard Seed and Crème Fraiche Crusted Cauliflower with White Beans and Anchovy Tomato Sauce. Though not truly vegetarian, by virtue of the wonderful umami injection provided by the anchovies in the zippy sauce, the dramatic plating of the cast-iron seared lobe of cauliflower on tender beans shows off Wrede’s Italian heritage and skill as the chef once deemed in the Top Ten in the country by Food & Wine Magazine (and still going strong a dozen years later). Many chefs lay claim to the farm-to-table moniker, but Wrede walks the talk in this dish and on much of his menu. He might just destroy the carnivore in me yet!
Joseph’s Culinary Pub, 428 Agua Fria Street, 505.982.1272.
At the Wine and Chile Fiesta this past September I kept hearing that Charles Dale at Bouche was serving up snails to the imbibing throngs. I was leery to seek them out; I always felt the only reason to eat the little guys was to have something with which to sop up the garlic butter. When I arrived at his booth, Dale implored me, in that charming way he has, to sample the snails. I was seduced, and a lifetime opinion changed. These Escargots à la Bourguignonne were tender and sweet, and I detected a dash of cream that elevated the sauce to a new luscious level. Dale’s goal at Bouche is to transport his dining guests to the Left Bank in Paris, and all of his classic dishes—especially this one—does exactly that. Bon voyage, my fear of snails!
Bouche, 451 West Alameda Street, 505.982.6297.
Mark Connell at Arroyo Vino goes from strength to strength! Starting at Max’s a few years back, and now taking on the task of appeasing and pleasuring the palates of the Las Campanas community, his skill and aplomb in the kitchen belie his baby face. With food this good, word spread quickly and soon townsfolk as well were heading out 599 to be wooed. I visit restaurants for a variety of reasons but seek out Connell’s creative cuisine when I want to be surprised, provoked and culinarily entertained. His Crispy Suckling Pig with Kimchi Consommé, Vermicelli and Snap Peas that I enjoyed this past summer still lingers in my mind—and is, happily, still on the menu, albeit in another clever incarnation. Connell continually challenges himself, cooks to the beat of his own drummer and, I think, needs to win a James Beard Award or Food & Wine Top Ten Chefs in America honor.
Arroyo Vino, 218 Camino La Tierra, 505.983.2100.
There are plenty of bakeries in town to satisfy the carb-cravings of locals, but Dulce, off Cordova, is my neighborhood favorite, by virtue of their plump, voluptuous quiches, which change in variety daily, with both meat and veggie options. The casual, well-priced café offers a huge assortment of pastries, in both regular and gluten-free versions. (The Blueberry Muffins are perfect, their quality undisturbed by their lack of gluten), and the friendly staff makes eating here even better. On my last visit, my Bacon, Tomato and Green Chile Quiche was chock full of cheese, crispy bacon nubs and fiery chile, with a flaky crust that crumbled beautifully when nudged with my fork. I don’t know what being a “real” man means, but I do eat quiche, especially from Dulce!
Dulce, 1100 Don Diego Avenue, Suite A, 505.989.9966.
I am a big believer of the notion that nice guys finish first, and I think a part of the reason the Ranch House does so well is the fact that its owners, Josh and Anne Baum and are so damn sweet—that and the delicious food and great prices. So whenever I have a hankering for barbecue, that’s my choice for down-home dining. The Baum’s were clever to stay in that same part of town when they moved to their fancy new digs after building their fan base at Josh’s BBQ on Cerrillos; it’s the new food frontier. I love the Rib and Chicken Combo and can’t pass up the Green Chile Cole Slaw, Smoky Beans and Buttery Green Chile Cornbread. I think the test for great barbecue is that the meats don’t even need added sauce to be moist and tasty, and the Ranch House wholeheartedly achieves this every time. The Chocolate-Banana Bread Pudding is delish, too!
The Ranch House, 2571 Cristo’s Road, 505.424.8900.
As much as I am not a fan of cold weather, a piping hot bowl of the Mushroom Stew at Vinaigrette is a terrific chill kill. Though offered as a vegetarian soup, this chunky miso-based potage is chock full of forest, button and porcini mushrooms and tricks your palate into thinking you are eating something meat-based. Fat-fried olive bread croutons top the bowl and start to soak up the hearty broth, so it’s best to dive in quick. I love how proprietress Erin Wade has figured a way to embellish her salad-based menu for the colder months, and I’m delighted for her that her new Albuquerque offshoot is packing in the customers, too. A restaurant with great food easily fits right in to any city rife with foodies.
Vinaigrette, 709 Don Cubero Alley, 505.820.9205.
As a frequent visitor to Canada, I have long been a fan of the Poutine, a bar food that has its origins in Quebec and is served around the country in various versions. I was surprised and delighted to spot it on the menu at my favorite cozy cocktail bar, Secreto, in the Hotel St. Francis. The recipe, in its simplest form, consists of French fries scattered with cheese curds and ladled with gravy (it’s way better than it sounds), but new Chef Clay Borden, who took over the charming Tabla de los Santos restaurant adjacent to the bar, really gilds the lily by adding green chile–braised short ribs and sexing up the gravy with truffles. This romantic bar boasts one of Santa Fe’s most creative bartenders in Chris Milligan, who takes exceptional pride in his mixology (the Local Beet is one of my favorites). I also sampled other dishes off Borden’s dinner menu, and I really want this talented Santa Fe newbie to succeed. I hear the dining room is being made more casual to encourage the hipsters from the bar to spill into one of the prettiest historic rooms in town.
Tabla de los Santos, 210 Don Gaspar Avenue, 505.983.5700.
Sometimes you just need a burger to make things right in the world, so I head over to Santa Fe Bite for their honking Big Bite Burger, 16 ounces of juicy, house-ground beef grilled and served on garlic bread (you gotta add green chile and cheese). The fact that they moved to a new location two blocks from my house is a serious threat to my waistline, but it is winter after all. Ah, that’s better!
Santa Fe Bite, 311 Old Santa Fe Trail, 505.982.0544.
More than a few times this summer I met visiting foodies who raved that their meal at Luminaria, at the Inn and Spa at Loretto, matched that of their other favorite dining experience, at Geronimo. To me, this spoke volumes—I measure and compare all fine dining occasions to the Canyon Road landmark and consider Eric DiStefano’s wonders with food play to be the yardstick by which all others are judged. Some successful chefs in Santa Fe are cocky while I think it is Chef Brett Sparman’s confidence in his cooking that is putting him in the league of DiStefano, Rios, Kiffin et al. The Phoenix native certainly knows his southwest ingredients and makes a mean paella to boot. When I looked back where I dined often this past year, Luminaria was right up there, and I enjoyed many a brunch on the sunny terrace in the shadow of the spires of the Loretto Chapel. For me, brunch is always Eggs Benedict, and Sparman’s Loretto Eggs Benedict, adorned with Hollandaise Foam, Asparagus, Shaved Ham and Crispy Breakfast Potatoes, takes the prize. Yum, yum and yum!
Luminaria, 211 Old Santa Fe Trail, 505.984.7929.
Geronimo’s longevity as premier dining destination is testimony to many things: gorgeous setting, excellent service, fantastic food, award-winning wine list, creative cocktails and most importantly in my book, attention to details and consistency. Eric DiStefano, who has an expert palate and is backed by Chef de Cuisine Paul Novak’s adroit kitchen staff, does it right. Always. DiStefano even does chicken right, with his scrumptious Oven Roasted Rock Hen, rubbed with Spring Garlic, Lemon, Honey, and Thyme, on Creamy Citrus Black Truffle Risotto. To me, Geronimo is everything I love about our titillating food scene, all together under one roof. Twenty-two years and running—long may she reign.
Geronimo, 724 Canyon Road, 505.982.1500.
Story by Chef Johnny Vee
Photos by Joy Godfrey