Early in October, we – the husband and I – found ourselves in the charming, southwestern town of Santa Fe in the state of New Mexico or Nuevo Mexico, that was once part of New Spain and then a territory of independent Mexico. While we were prepared to be charmed, having seen images of the city repeatedly while researching our trip, we weren’t prepared to be amazed by the variety and quality of its food offerings.
Thankfully, not a tourist trap!
Typically, and I am sure if you travel you know this, places with heavy tourist traffic end up with a high density of ‘tourist traps’ – places that offer very basic, run of the mill stuff at eye popping prices. Luckily, each one of our meals in Santa Fe turned out to be delicious. For foodies that is a ringing endorsement for a place!
Before I get into describing the things we ate and where and generally blabber on and on about Santa Fe (which I LOVED!), here are some of the things we tried – not all southwestern or New Mexican but new for us anyway :
- Blue Corn
- Dirty Chai
- Chile Relleno
- Bison Burger
- Kashk E Bademjan
- Trout with a filling of herbs and walnuts
Night one: Dinner in situ
Our first night in Santa Fe was at the end of a long drive through the stunning countryside of the Navajo Nation. So, needless to say, after 6 hours on our bums we weren’t left with too much energy to go hunting for grub. Instead, at our request, the good folks at our hotel (stunning Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi) had dinner ready for us. There were turkey sandwiches with a garden salad each, a cheese plate that included blue cheese along with swiss and possibly cheddar (little hazy on that), berries and pickled orange rind. Any holiday meal is incomplete without some wine. We had merlot that night.
We slept well, and took off on our culinary adventure in Santa Fe.
Breakfast with Nopals and Blue Corn
Day one started with a hearty breakfast at the Anasazi Restaurant where Chef Edgar Beas has infused the menu with lots of local ingredients and created partnerships with local farms. Our meal included:
Blue Corn Pancakes with mixed berries and organic maple syrup. The bluish color of the pancakes first had us thinking of blueberry pancakes, which turn blue near pieces of fruit in the batter. But these were evenly hued and airy, like the texture of a corn bread. The pancakes themselves were mildly sweet, corn typically is sweet, so that we didn’t need a lot of maple syrup. I’ve always been a fan of “makki ki roti”, that staple of winter meals in Punjab, and am tempted to try making corn pancakes at home after tasting the ones above at Anasazi.
The second plate was an “Egg White Omelette with Nopals, Local Oyster Mushrooms, Heirloom Tomatoes, Cuitlacoche and Queso Fresco” served with roasted potatoes and a small salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. Each bite was an eruption of flavours, even though it was only an omelette. Reason being the quality and complexity of local ingredients used, of which two were of particular interest.
Nopal or Prickly Pear, is a cactus leaf or pad that is commonly used in Mexican cooking and in southwestern US. According to Sunset magazine’s Elaine Johnson, they have a lemony flavour and texture, and crunch similar to bell peppers. She recommends sauteeing them before using in any recipes, such as eggs.
Cuitlacoche or Corn Smut, is actually the result of a fungus called Ustilago Maydis. Ustilago derives from the Latin word ustilare, which means ‘to burn’. The smuts have a gall like, blackish appearance. Elsewhere in the world, maize and corn infected by the same fungus are not used and the crop is destroyed but in Mexico it is treated as a delicacy. Cuitlacoche has a smoky flavour that has often been described as either close to mushrooms or even truffles. Only young, unripe galls are used for cooking because mature galls are dry and full of spores. The omelette did not have an overpowering smokiness, but it had a good balance of sour, savoury and woody flavours.
By contrast, our third plate was quite plain – a serving of “Smoked Salmon, Bagel with Cream Cheese, Red Onion and Capers.” This along with a carrot juice and mango smoothie wrapped up our hearty breakfast that felt more like brunch and kept our energies up through the day.
Tea break on Canyon Road
Canyon Road in Santa Fe is a half mile stretch that houses the city’s art district. Santa Fe is an artist colony and that is immediately apparent. From the adobe architecture, to furniture, tiles and mosaics in every other shop, to the pottery and exquisite turquoise jewelry made by native American craftsmen. After an afternoon of walking through galleries with beautiful canvases and sculptures we found ourselves a cosy spot on Cafe Grecco’s patio and had a slice of warm blueberry pie with dirty chai.
No, we weren’t chugging down alcohol! This dirty chai was dirty because it had a shot of coffee in it. Contrary to how that sounds, it was actually quite good and just the right amount of kick to keep us going until dinner.
New Mexican flavours at Pasqual’s
Could we forgo tasting southwestern food while there? Of course not. And that’s exactly what we did at the end of day one of walking around and taking in the sights. Cafe Pasqual’s is located in the heart of town, close to the historic Santa Fe square. It has a cosy, welcoming atmosphere with an entire wall of frescos with characters living it large – singing, dancing, drinking and making merry. As with the city, there were large bunches of red chiles hanging from the ceiling. Our meal at Pasqual’s was the first that introduced us to the famous New Mexico Chile.
Green or Red – that is the question!
Chiles start off green, we all know, and then ripen and turn red. In New Mexico chiles are used in both forms, and hence the eternal question while getting food is whether you want green or red. By which they mean whether its the red or green sauce you want on your food. At Pasqual’s everything was already paired. Thankfully, we didn’t have to choose.
Our meal started with a plate of grilled spiced rubbed skirt steak skewers called Carne Asada Skewers served with guacamole and tomato jalapeno salsa. The meat was melt in your mouth juicy and guess what; it tasted like a spicy kebab. I kid you not! This was way better that the description.
Next were two plates – the one on the left above is Cafe Pasqual’s “Plato Supremo” which our server said has been on the menu for over 20 years and a patrons’ favourite. On the right in the image above is their “Grilled Green Chile Bison Cheeseburger“. You read that right, Bison, as in the large, slightly woolly American Buffalo. Also, notice that each of these has chile – one of the primary reasons we chose these out of a long list of equally inviting dishes.
The Plato Supremo comprises of : Chile Relleno – a cheese filled, battered and fried green chile – often a poblano pepper but in this case it was New Mexican Chile which is also known as the Hatch chile. Mole Enchilada with Chicken – mole is a mexican sauce that typically takes a long time to prepare. The first time I learnt about it was while watching Chef’s Table episode on the Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, who serves a plate in his restaurant (or at least did in the episode) with just two versions of mole. Some grilled vegetable, a choice of either a Beef Barbacoa Taco or Oxacan Tamal and Cilantro Rice. We chose Beef Barbacoa Taco. I am not an expert but if one plate had to provide a wide ranging set of southwestern and Mexican flavours, then I think this would be it.
Barbacoa is the focus of Chef’s Table’s episode on Christina Martinez. Her restaurant called South Philly Barbacoa specializes in tacos and in her specialty of making barbacoa – slow grilled lamb with lots and lots of citrus, traditionally orange juice. Christina’s story is really powerful and compelling. She came to the USA as an illegal immigrant in order to escape oppressive circumstances and provide financial support to her daughter, whom she left behind in the care of her brother and family. If you haven’t yet watched the new season of Chef’s Table, I’d recommend it. The stories showcased this time capture struggles of successful chefs and no one can tell Christina’s story better than her.
Finally, the Bison Burger with grilled green chile. In all other respects the burger was much like any other burger, except, the corn bread buns and flavour packed grilled green chile. Accompaniments included a salad, mustard, a delicious salsa and pickles.
We finished off (actually we couldn’t finish ALL that food) by sharing a serving of vanilla ice cream with some chopped dates. After which we walked back to our hotel under a twinkling star filled sky.
Good Morning with Sustainability
Our hotel in Santa Fe was the first place in our journey to the southwest where we found disposable bamboo spoons as a part of the in-room refreshments set. This was a welcome change from all the plastic cutlery we’d seen elsewhere.
To read along with my morning coffee I found a copy of “Edibles“, a magazine celebrating New Mexican food and culture. I was amazed to learn about the wide variety, energy and rootedness of chefs and restaurants featured in the edition. New Mexico boasts of a thriving culture of local farmers markets and small farmers that are forging strong relations with restaurateurs in tourist hotspots such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque. For a food hungry traveler this was the perfect start to my day.
A Dose of Art: Georgia O’Keefe and Sculpture Gardens of Santa Fe
A short walk from our hotel brought us to the Georgia O’Keefe museum that holds over 3000 art works by the artist. O’Keefe was a revolutionary artist who opened up the art world for women. Reading her story and trajectory was humbling. O’Keefe makes an appearance in a short film at the start of the museum tour where her words and ideas were both comforting and relatable. One such quote has stayed with me since that day. She says in the film (the quote is also available at several sources online, including Goodreads),
“I think it’s so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary–you’re happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.”
After spending time at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum we spent some more time taking in the views, visiting historic churches, perusing art galleries and a spectacular sculpture garden curated by one such gallery.
In Chocolate Heaven!
Eventually, our walk ended at the Kakawa Chocolate House. Kakawa serves a variety of chocolate elixirs, chocolate confections, coffee and some desserts like the mango sorbet we tried. They divide chocolate elixirs into two types – Mesoamerican and Historic European. According to their description the Mesoamerican elixirs are darker and much more complex in flavour crafted from recipes based upon findings from archaeological digs. The Historic European elixirs on the other hand are based on some of the oldest recipes from Europe and sweeter. In addition to the Chili Elixir, I also tried their Raspberry Truffle and Green Chili Caramel, both of which were delicious. The green chili caramel was spicy but mild and quite refreshing.
Kakawa was an absolute delight. While there I also learned that they are now opening closer home in Salem, MA! So keep looking at their website for an announcement. If you are in Boston, it will be worth the trip to Salem.
Persian flavours in the lap of Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Day two of sightseeing brought us back full circle to Canyon Road and we decided to have dinner at a relatively new Persian restaurant called Milad Persian Bistro that came highly recommended.
While Persia is far from Southwestern USA, the terrain is in many ways similar to Tehran province which is also semi-arid and mountainous with some steppes and alpine regions. So it is befitting that an unpretentious but art filled persian bistro nests in the valley of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
We started our meal with a serving of Kashk E Bademjan, a dip made of eggplants and walnuts with sundried persian yogurt and mint; served with fresh pita. Despite the H-man’s dislike for eggplant, he actually enjoyed it. That says a lot! The most well known eggplant dip is Baba Ganoush. These two dips are only similar as far as the use of eggplant. Kashk e Bademjan doesn’t contain any tahini and is only slightly nutty. It is instead closer to the Indian dish Bharta, but smoother.
After this promising start we were served stellar entres. I enjoyed that night’s special – Herb and Walnut filled Trout with Saffron Rice . I do not think I have had rice that fragrant and well flavoured without any overt use of spices. The trout was crisp on the outside and perfectly cooked inside. The mix of nuts and herbs in the filling and garnish was light on the palette while complimenting the fish.
I first tasted trout during a summer in high school while visiting my grandparents in Himachal Pradesh. Their friend (a regular summer bird from Germany) who had been fishing that day invited us for lunch and smoked the trout right in front of us. I had never had fish that fresh and cooked as simply as smoked in a box. Memories of that taste still linger and each smoked fish that I try is automatically compared to it. But here, it was trout that attracted me and I wasn’t disappointed.
The H-man had the Milad Soltani that comes with two kinds of beef kabobs – a Barg which is a “leaf cut saffron, onion & garlic marinated beef tenderloin” and a Kabob Koobideh, which is a “beef skewer seasoned with sumac and onion”. The kabobs were equally well prepared. The Shirazi salad – a mix of onions, tomatoes and cucumber with lime juice – was especially good.
As with any meal, we can never step away without dessert. One measure of a good restaurant is the brevity and focus of its menu. Milad has that and in the dessert section their focus is zen-like; creating a stellar Saffron and Rosewater ice cream. We were both speechless after having a spoonful. It was just the right amount of saffron and a hint of rose. No overpowering overtures of making something authentic. Just delicate elegance; very Persian when it comes to food.
And that’s a wrap on Santa Fe
I admit we did eat the next morning and left the city for Albuquerque with small cups of ice cream from La Lecheria
But our culinary adventures in Santa Fe ended there with many memories of gorgeous plates of food and interesting, arresting and delicate flavours we had not tasted before. If you plan to visit the area soon, be sure to eat at these establishments (not an advertisement) and also add to the list of new places you discover. I’d love to learn about other culinary gems in the region.