People expect to find Tex-Mex cuisine in Santa Fe. But here, southwestern means northern New Mexican (norteño) cooking. Many of the restaurants serving New Mexican-style meals (comidas nativas) have been open for years. Owners can trace their New Mexico roots back hundreds of years. Most use old family recipes that their abuelas (grandmothers) cooked. Many weren’t written down. Roberto Cordova of Casa Chimayó tells of his mother teaching the restaurant’s cook the old family dishes. “Just a handful of beans,” she’d say. “If your hands are small like mine, two handfuls; if you have large hands like Grandpa Severo, one hand.” Florence Jaramillo of Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante tells a similar story of collecting recipes from her husband’s family. No one had ever written them down. While there is some commonality to how these traditional foods were prepared, every family had their own secrets. The local food is spicy and earthy. The cooking is based on “three sisters”: corn, beans and squash, the crops grown by the Pueblo people. Chile, which came with the Spaniards and is now the official state vegetable, is ubiquitous. Traditionally roasted green was eaten in summer (though now thanks to freezing it’s available year-round). The dried red, made into ristras (strings of chile), was used the rest of the year. Many of these restaurants should be in the number one spot. Just pick the one (or more) that speak to you and savor the spice and the history.
Maria's New Mexican Kitchen has a long history in Santa Fe. In 1952, Maria and Gilbert Lopez opened a take-out restaurant offering traditional New Mexican food. In 1985, Al and Laurie Lucero bought Maria's. Al's goal was to take the restaurant back to how he remembered it growing up in the 50s. In 2013, Santa Fe Dining Inc. bought it. It's one of the few non-family owned New Mexican restaurants in the area. The eatery is known for its legendary margarita list featuring over 100 different permeations of this popular local drink. Their signature dishes are chicken enchiladas with green chile and chile rellenos. They are also known for their "soupy" pinto beans, the only local dining spot who serves them this way. There are many gluten-free menu options.
El Paragua is in Española, about a half-hour north of Santa Fe started as a taco stand in 1958. It was run by brothers Lorenzo and Pedro Atencio, then aged 10 and 12. They sold their mother's homemade tacos and tamales on the town's main street, shaded by a colorful beach umbrella. This summer business was so successful that in 1966 their parents, Luis and Frances Atencio made it a full-time venture. The tack room in their historic home became the El Paragua. The restaurant, now run by Luis and Frances' nine children, offers fresh food prepared from Frances' original recipes coupled with friendly service. The name, Spanish for "umbrella," comes from the one used at the original enterprise. The stand's original offering, beef tacos remains their signature dish. The extensive menu also features lamb, steak and seafood. Prices are a bit higher than some NM restaurants.
Café Castro (originally Castro's El Comal) was opened in 1990. The New Mexican restaurant, owned by Julia and Carlos Castro, is now on Cerrillos Road across from Jackalope (look for their sign, it's easy to miss). Many of their recipes come from Julia's New Mexico roots which go back to both the Pueblo people and Spanish conquistadores. Others came from the original Tomasita's where Carlos worked at one time. The customer base is mostly local but you'll find tourists from nearby motels. They are known for their sopapillas and their Chile Caribe (red chile) with its rich roasted flavor and menudo (tripe). The carne adovada, cooked in that wonderfully spicy red, is a winner. The Castros see the business as a "mom and pop" operation. Some of the friendly staff have been with them almost since the beginning. Prices are easy on the pocketbook.
La Cocina, on US 284/85 in Española, about a half-hour north of Santa Fe, is family owned and operated. Opened by Eddie and Jessie Martinez as La Cocina Café in 1970, the initial concept was to have a small shop and café catering to locals. They moved to their current location in 2002 and renamed it La Cocina. The food, made from old family recipes, is mostly northern New Mexican. Signature dishes include Jesse's Combination Plate (a cheese enchilada, a beef enchilada and pork tamale served with whole pinto beans and posole) and the unusual guacamole and chicharrones burrito. They also offer the very American Chicken Fried Steak as well as sandwiches. They cook the way the abuelas have done it for generations. Their goal: to treat customers as friends, to serve them well-prepared authentic food and to get it to them quickly.
One day in the early 1970s Georgia Maryol wandered into Tomasita's, a small café on Hickox Street (the building now houses Tune-Up Café). It reminded her of Albuquerque's Atencio Barrio where she grew up. She kept coming back. Hearing the small eatery was for sale, she bought it. They thrived and moved to their current location, the old Chile Line depot in the Railyard in 1978. There's a loyal local customer base augmented by loads of tourists. Besides an extensive menu, there are set daily specials. The hands-down favorite: Tuesday's Deluxe Blue Plate: a combo offering a blue corn chicken enchilada, a chile relleno, and a beef taco served with Spanish rice and beans. They pride themselves on their chile and know their growers. Beware! They make it HOT; that's the way the customers like it. The menu bears a warning suggesting that you taste it before ordering.
La Choza (the shack), sister restaurant to The Shed, opened in 1983. It sits on tiny Alarid Street in the Railyard District, adjacent to the train tracks. It was started as a take-out lunch restaurant but quickly gained popularity and table service was added. While The Shed tends to get a lot of tourists, customers here are mostly local folks. La Choza is known for their red chile. Their enchiladas, made from blue corn and stacked the traditional New Mexican way, are their best sellers. Stuffed sopapillas, crispy tacos and chile rellenos are also popular choices. Start your meal with chips and salsa and an icy Sangre de Cristo margarita. They're made with blood orange liquor and blood orange puree. Unlike The Shed, meals come with sopapillas. Eat them with your food or save them for dessert. Just add honey.
Each New Mexico town and family has its own variation on classic dishes. Roberto Cordova, aka "the King of Chile," wanted to bring Chimayó style cooking to Santa Fe. He opened Casa Chimayó in his family's former Water Street home in 2011. He says the food, made from old family recipes, is "simple [and] rustic." He calls the restaurant's specialty, "Chile Caribe" [red chile]. These are the chiles his family grew in Chimayó for generations. Cordova says, "If the chile is not good, the food won't be good either." Casa Chimayó is known for posole, a stew made from dried, lime-cured corn much like hominy. When Diners, Drive-ins and Dives host Guy Fieri came to film at the eatery, he tasted this traditional dish and loved it. Ask Cordova to share his stories; he will. He says, "Our customers arrive as visitors, but leave as family."
Want to dine where the locals go? Head for Atrisco Café & Bar in DeVargas Mall. Locals come here for the traditional comidas nativas de Nuevo Mexico (northern New Mexican cuisine). Owner George Gundrey, former Executive Director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market, has a strong commitment to fresh and local and it's evident in his restaurant. He sources food from area growers whenever he can. His natural (hormone and antibiotic-free) beef and lamb are raised by local ranchers, an over 400-year-old tradition in New Mexico. Atrisco's signature dish, roast leg of lamb burritos, pays homage to this. The restaurant is named for Albuquerque's Atrisco Barrio. Gundrey's grandmother Sophia ran the Central Café at the corner of Atrisco Boulevard and Central Avenue from the 1940s to the 1970s. He's the third generation of his family in the restaurant business. Gundrey also runs his mother's former restaurant, Tomasita's.
The Shed, located a convenient half a block from the Plaza, has been dishing up their take on traditional New Mexican fare since 1960. Set in a historic former home on East Palace Avenue, diners are greeted by a warren of small, charming rooms. The popular eatery is almost always busy. They take chile seriously here and grind their own daily. The menu offers a range of tacos and enchiladas including traditional blue corn enchiladas. Their signature dish: red chile cheese and onion blue corn enchiladas. There's almost always a wait for lunch unless you arrive by 11:30. Enjoy a margarita made with freshly-squeezed lime juice in their bar or browse nearby shops while you wait. Dinner reservations are available. Make them early; weekends fill up quickly.
Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante, a perennial favorite of locals and tourist alike, will be celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2015. It's run by octogenarian Florence Jaramillo who started it with her former husband Arturo in 1965. The historic Chimayó home belonged to his grandparents. The popular eatery is known for serving local Northern New Mexican regional cuisine. Their recipes have been handed down through generations of the Jaramillo family. The restaurant uses local ingredients whenever possible; just about everything is made from scratch. Favorites here include carne adovada, pork marinated and cooked in red chile; posole, dried corn kernels made into a stew; tamales; and sopapillas, puffed fried dough either eaten with the meal or as a dessert. Start your meal with the signature Chimayó Cocktail, a concoction mixing apple cider and tequila, or the popular Prickly Pear margarita. Reservations are strongly recommended for both lunch and dinner.