I ate my way through Santa Fe two weekends ago, a moveable feast that left me wondering not why Denver is so lacking in true Southwestern restaurants, not why green chile underwent such an evolution on its trip north, but this: Why don't we have a crêperie?
After three breakfasts in a row at French Pastry Shop and Crêperie, a low-key coffeehouse on the street level of La Fonda Hotel, I can't imagine a more heavenly way to start the day. Or a simpler one: The menu offered a choice of savory or sweet fillings tucked into the eatery's thin, slightly sweet crêpes to create packages that had just enough heft to fill our bellies without making us uncomfortable. The oozy egg, ham and cheese ($5.75) was a wonderful savory start, while the combo of raspberries and blueberries with whipped cream ($6.50) would satisfy any sweet tooth. After splitting them, we were ready for serious shopping -- until, of course, it was time for lunch.
In Santa Fe, it's a formidable task to find a restaurant that will deliver the Southwestern goods without an accompanying load of pretension -- and I'd already done Coyote Cafe, Santacafe, Ore House, Old Mexico Grill, Blue Corn Café, Piñon Grill and Tortilla Flats on previous visits. So we started with Burrito Co., which offers the cheapest food you're going to find close to the plaza (the carne adovada was amazingly tender and well-seasoned), and followed it up with a stop at San Francisco St. Bar & Grill. This is a locals' favorite, as evidenced by the number of diners there for the happy-hour burger special; it's low on price and atmosphere -- with the exception of some stunning photographs by Galisteo photographer Nicholas Trofimuk -- but high on flavor.
Not in Denver
The Shed was our lunch stop the next day; the pseudo-divey space is another popular place, with great people-watching and simple, straightforward New Mexican food. An enchilada plate ($6.75) glued two tortillas together with runny white cheese to create a flat sandwich that was then smothered in the Shed's great red, which arrived at the table so hot it bubbled. The green was worthy, too, with quite a chile punch.
The obvious followup to such an un-ostentatious meal was another local love, The Pink Adobe, a 57-year-old restaurant that occupies a 300-year-old house in the Barrio de Analco. We got lucky and scored a table in the cozy front room, complete with its own fireplace and just two other tables. So it was romance city over escargots ($7.75), tournedos Bordelaise ($21) and the Pink's signature steak Dunigan ($23.25), which paired a well-charred N.Y. strip with mushrooms and a hearty green chile. Another signature dish is the side potatoes: baked, then deep-fried just before being served, so that each spud becomes a gigantic French fry.
At the Plaza Restaurant the next day, I sampled one of the best soups I've had in my life: the pumpkin posole ($7.95), a full meal's worth of puréed sugar pumpkins dressed up with a hot-hot chunky green chile and a blob of sour cream. The Plaza's atmosphere is diner all the way, with one wall a lighted map showing New Mexico's borders and another wall a great source of information: Signs admonish diners to behave and use their manners, list phone numbers for top New Mexican politicians and the White House, and give the day's weather along with a forecast. And you can bless the Plaza for keeping the Frito pie ($5.95) alive, since the F.W. Woolworth's next door is slated for gutting in the spring. It's not quite the same eating this gooey dish in a restaurant, although the Plaza's version does boast the requisite ground beef, tomato-pastey sauce, copious amounts of cheap cheese and lots of Fritos for crunch. But since Santa Fe has finally wised up and fenced in the grass on the plaza itself, you can't picnic there with a pie, anyway.
We always save room for the Plaza's dessert, and the coconut cream pie ($3.50) and cherry pie ($3.50) were exemplary specimens, as expected. The coconut cream sat in a coconut crust, the cherry (fresh fruit, not pie glop) in a tooth-achingly sweet granola crumble.
We had to put a lot of space between that lunch and dinner, so we stopped at the ever-bustling Tomasita's for a few of its delicious margaritas. Although we were tempted to stay right there, we moved on to Maria's New Mexican Kitchen. The eatery has received a lot of national attention lately because of The Great Margarita Book, written by Al Lucero, who bought the 49-year-old eatery with his wife, Laurie, from founders Maria and Gilbert Lopez in 1984. Maria's uses hundreds of real tequilas (as opposed to the swill made in this country) to create its margaritas, and we did our best to sample many of those, as well. I think we also ate some food: I have a vague recollection of crispy chiles rellenos oozing white cheese, a creamy-yet-chunky guacamole, and a smiley woman hand-rolling tortillas right before our bobbing and weaving eyes.
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After a good night's sleep, we headed for Taos and Michael's, which just celebrated its 27th birthday. That's 27 years of the best breakfasts around, including heart-stopping, fresh-whipped-cream-filled long johns ($2.50). Michael's also makes a great open-faced roast beef sandwich with a heavenly beefy gravy that could make a rat palatable; its gravylike green chile goes with anything, too.
Our favorite meal of the trip, though, was at Doc Martin's in the Historic Taos Inn, where we were surprised and delighted to find former Colorado chef Scott Radek. Before he moved into Doc's kitchen a year ago, Radek had been cooking at the Keystone Resort -- but he doesn't miss that beautiful setting at all. "It's unbelievable, the ingredients you can get here," Radek says. "In Colorado, everything's such a struggle, but here I have guys coming in with these beautiful field-foraged mushrooms and fresh produce. This is just the kind of situation I wanted, and I'm having a blast."
That was evident in the food. We could have eaten the entire appetizer menu, and patient and professional server K.C. Weakley did his best to pace us, first bringing out the restaurant's signature chile relleno ($6), a crackly poblano engorged with goat-cheese cream and augmented by zippy salsa fresca and a sharply tart vegetarian green chile, as well as a goat-cheese charlotte ($6.50), which featured more goat cheese wrapped in steamed vegetables. Then came two more stunners: the chipotle shrimp on a corn cake ($6.75), with a delectable balance of sweet and spicy, and the house-smoked trout ($8.50), which came with an inspired raspberry-horseradish sauce. An unusual New Mexican-style Caesar ($6.75) -- roasted garlic-lime vinaigrette made the difference -- and a solid duck-liver pâté ($5) nearly finished us off, but we just had to sample a trio of desserts. One of Doc's new dishes, a tamale filled with dried fruit, was at least interesting; the raspberry soufflé ($7.50) came with a chocolate-flavored crème anglaise that was to die for; and the sumptuous chocolate symphony ($7), what every flourless chocolate cake wants to be, was eye-rollingly fabulous.
It's a shame Colorado lost Radek to New Mexico. But a crêperie would be a nice consolation prize.