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Santa Fe Tequila Company

Santa Fe Tequila Company gives rise to idle thoughts.
Mark Manger

Albuquerque, New Mexico, about eight years ago...

The rush started around five. There was never any way to gauge it — nothing scientific, no outward sign. Though we flew a jolly roger from the fryer end and my guys comported themselves like the hippest of pirates (bandannas, tattoos, ear and nose rings, long knives and a certain roughness of language and manner), we could only have wished for the sailor's sense of turning weather, of a change looming on the horizon. One minute it was quiet, the stone-floor dining room cool and silent. The next, boom: They were on us.

This was the Range, one of maybe a dozen restaurants that defined the middle-mark of New Mexican cuisine at that time and in that place. Not fancy, but not a taquería, either — a sort of jumped-up bistro, with red-chile-spiked tenderloin over Michoacán potatoes in place of steak frite and green-chile stew rather than soup a l'oignon, staffed by a good and relatively happy crew of dropouts and throat-cutters, bossed by owners who knew their business well, who'd already made a mint in the industry and were really only concerned with making two or three more. I was on the books as a line cook (sauté end and expo) but stood the post of chef de cuisine because one was required and no one else seemed interested in stepping up. I did ordering and fussed with the schedule, ran specials that sold (most of the time) like they had crack in 'em, and still worked nightly with my pans and knives, first pop through to last call, while the galley radio drooled droning rave music and my guys jumped off repeatedly to top up from the communal well of whatever party drug was available. Seeing a grillardin struggling to map out twenty steaks and burgers while high was a pretty good laugh. But for true comedy, you needed to watch a fry cook, bent on Ecstasy, attempting to swim through a busy Friday-night turn without permanently crippling himself by trying to hump the labels off the Frialator.

When the first orders began spooling off the printer, the cooks came in from wherever they'd been (mostly the alley) and jumped on the early checks with both feet, working fast to take full advantage of that initial surge of adrenaline and to shave the curve — to stay ahead of the wash of tops that would follow, surfing the curl of customers without getting swamped by a flood of deep-fried chimis and wild-mushroom polenta.

Kitchens are funny things. A busy one will often work better and faster than the same galley stuck in the doldrums of a slow day, week or age. And the whole fighting-ship analogy is apt: a busy crew, left with little time to think about their sorry lot and forever running under the constant pressure of the ticket printer, is a crew less likely to get up to pointless mischief and more likely to work together tightly, with every hand knowing its business and every plate a thoughtless, reflexive iteration of the one before. For a working cook, there's no fear quite like the fear of being forced to stand, in heavy whites and checks, before a blazing flat-top hour after hour with nothing to do but think about how much better your life might've been if only you'd taken your mother's advice years ago and become a welder or maybe a car thief. I've seen kitchens mutiny. I've been part of a couple, even led one. And these days, when I sit down to eat in a slow house where I am the only customer (or close enough), I feel that same clutch of fear in my chest when I think about the boys standing on the line, brainlessly arranging and rearranging their mise, jumping out for longer and longer cigarette breaks until, finally, they decide just not to come back. "Jesus..." I think. "What if I'd ended up here?"

"Jesus..." I thought, sitting in the echoing dining room of the Santa Fe Tequila Company a couple weeks back, my spine straight against the faux-adobe booth back, fingers running across the brass brads decorating the edge of the table. "What if I'd ended up here?"

Luckily, my party was large and raucous enough that the place didn't feel so desolate. Luckily, we were drinking enough (disdaining margaritas because I always have, going for icy Coronas and shots and half shots off the long but fairly pedestrian tequila list, which wastes space on Cabo Wabo and Cuervo tequilas but also has Don Julio Real, even if it goes for fifty bucks a shot) that, after a while, our own company was all we needed.

But still, I had an ear turned, and at the bar, the galley crew was discussing one of their own who'd been heard out on the town talking treason about the house, bad-mouthing the place for its dearth of trade and worse, and grimly assessing their own odds for survival. The consensus seemed to be that they'd make it, but that standing a full dinner shift to cook for a dozen tables hardly seemed worth the trouble. Once a cook or a chef starts down that path of thinking, it takes a powerful change to head him back toward usefulness, toward believing that he truly is better off here than down the street, across town or maybe in a different business altogether.

They went back to their stations when our order went in — a spread of chips (cold) and guac (decent, but light on the lime), posole, green-chile stew, barbecued ribs, mashed potatoes smothered in red chile, camarones fritos and green-chile chicken enchiladas. Some of the stuff fairly flew to our table, some came very slowly, and there was no obvious attempt at reasonable spacing or flighting. But the waits gave me time to absorb the menu (and a couple more drinks). Many dishes were lifted from our more famous Southern neighbors: There were Navajo tacos (Indian fry bread topped with taco fixings) straight out of every truck stop and casino parking lot in the Land of Enchantment; a carne adobada inspired by Leona's in Chimayo; the steak Rosalea named for Rosalea Murphy of the Pink Adobe in Santa Fe; and enchiladas (served rolled) that were close enough to those I put to the rail fifty or a hundred times a night at the Range that I could describe to you every step in their prep and plating. In some cases, the menu listed the affiliation of a particular dish; in others, it didn't. I've been at this game long enough that I appreciate creative borrowing. I appreciate it even more when it's done well.

Which it was, with the excellent camarones fritos. The fat shrimp, jacketed in fried masa and dusted with chile powder, came in a basket with a brace of sauces (rémoulades, actually — one red and one green) for dipping. The shrimp hit my belly like a brick, true, but I would've gladly suffered the weight for a second order. But the carne adobada was a mess. It had spent too long in the braise, the pork shoulder almost disintegrating, its flavor buried under the smoky bitterness of the Chimayo red chile without the necessary edge of sweetness. The best red-chile sauces are a mix of pleasure and pain, like licking honey off a razor blade — a savage heat followed by a slow burn, braced against a deep smokiness balanced by a blooming sweetness. This sauce didn't have that complexity, that depth of feeling. The ribs suffered from the opposite problem, being too complex by half — sauced in an ancho-pineapple-brandy-brown-sugar sauce that was tantamount to Alexander sculpting the Venus de Milo and then putting a clock in her stomach. The result was a decent rib (which wanted for either a bit more smoke or a bit more texture, depending on the bite) made nearly inedible by a sauce that stuck like glue and made every mouthful taste like candy.

I liked the enchiladas (even if no one else did) because they were an accurate representation of New Mexican grub — the chicken coming from a bath in the hot table, bland and plain, wrapped in blue corn tortillas and then sauced with a creamy green chile in the Santa Fe style. (The difference between Santa Fe verde and the Albuquerque version can generally be measured by a scant handful of flour, a sprinkling of cornstarch or arrowroot — sixty minutes of northward travel making the green a little thicker, a little cloudier, a little stickier than that in 'Burque.) And while I could've done without the mantle of melted cheese on top, that, too, was traditional enough. I returned to that plate again and again, since both the posole and the green-chile stew were nightmares — the former completely flavorless, with too-soft hominy, chunks of pork that chewed like sponges and a broth like water, the latter all sticky heat and muddled flavors. The heart of New Mexican cuisine beats in its posole and green-chile stew, but these dishes lacked any kind of high-desert soul.

Subsequent visits to the Tequila Company did nothing to tilt the scales. For every good plate (a carne asada made up like a South Texas fajita plate, satisfying in its simplicity), there was another bad moment (like dried-out steam-table mashed potatoes or pinto beans served in a goo with the consistency of dish soap and the taste of sour onion purée). The lovely dining room was nearly always empty — save for prospective cooks and servers crouched over tables, filling out applications and being hired on the spot — either for the second Santa Fe Tequila Company location, due to open shortly, or to fill posts so recently vacated here that the shadows of former employees were still not out the door.

While I enjoyed the sense of stepping back once more into the world I so fully inhabited just a few years ago during my own turn through the Land of Enchantment, I did not enjoy the sense of a house in trouble, suffering from low counts and too-slow services. When I was cooking, I could spot a sinking vessel from a mile off. And these days, I still know when to abandon ship.

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