Tasting the New Santa Fe
Yes, you can still find green chile burgers and perfect tamales. But a crop of local chefs are looking beyond the traditional, and are redefining southwestern cooking dish by dish.
For a restaurant, a “sense of place” often means sticking to a flavor profile. But in Santa Fe, a culinary destination with its own well-known cuisine, several chefs are throwing out the rulebook and reinterpreting the concept of what “southwestern” means.
Mark Miller kickstarted the city’s food evolution back in 1987, when he founded the now iconic Coyote Cafe. The “contemporary Southwestern” restaurant introduced dishes like crab-and-corn enchiladas and peppered elk tenderloin to the local palate. Under new ownership since 2015, the restaurant is still one of the best in town, now with refreshed interiors and slightly tweaked menus.
Other chefs have followed suit. Maize, the latest project by chef Charles Dale, seeks to create an edible story of the region’s cuisine, while tying it to the food of the Americas as a whole—where the restaurant’s namesake ingredient has played a pivotal role across civilizations. Native foods make surprising appearances in almost all of the dishes, most notably in the signature Three Sisters soups, whose exact recipe constantly rotates, but always contains the three major heritage foods of the region: squash and bean, and, of course, corn.
Meanwhile, at Eloisa, chef John Sedlar uses traditional ingredients from Northern New Mexico in new ways, reconsidering and recombining them into innovative dishes, such as a blue cornmeal-crusted trout, served with oregano, a warm corn salad and piquillo pepper sauce. Sedlar’s grandmother, the eponymous Eloisa, taught him to love experimenting in the kitchen, and pushed his aunt’s culinary skills as well—she served as Georgia O’Keefe’s personal chef for more than a decade. Sedlar’s love letter to the painter is a five-course dégustation menu that evokes the painter’s life in her Abiquiui home: chile, smoked pepper, and flowers bring to mind her environment and artwork. “The menu is an exploration of the foods that she ate” Sedlar told the Santa Fe New Mexican when he launched it in 2015. “This is her terroir.”
And while the lunch menu at Anasazi Restaurant has recognizably southwestern flair—full of green chile and mesquite-grilled tacos—the dinner menu marks a change in identity, one crafted from chef Edgar Beas’s background as a fine dining chef, and inspired by his love of distinctly home-grown, sometimes unusual foods. A determined locavore, Beas forages in his own backyard for prickly pear and juniper, and sometimes ventures farther afield to the Taos Mountains for fresh chanterelle and porcini mushrooms. He also visits local farms, rolling up his white chef coat sleeves to discover what secret delights might be growing next to their commercial greenhouses.
“The exciting part is finding something unique, that people don’t necessarily use,” says Beas. “I go up to the farms and poke around and see what’s growing.”
Some of the things Beas finds are only available for a couple of weeks a year—simultaneously forcing and allowing him to get creative, coming up with dishes spontaneously based on what the seasons bring. That can include rarely-seen ingredients like purslane—a vitamin-packed salad green, better known as pigweed, that grows exuberantly in New Mexico but that locals regard as a nuisance—and marigold flowers. He has also sourced fresh orach (a velvety, red spinach) seeds from a farmer in nearby Ojo Caliente. “You toss them in salads, and they taste like little spinach-flavored seeds,” he says. “It was so weird but so good.”
“My menus are based on my moods,” says Beas. “I don’t really plan menus out. I go, I buy ingredients and think, what can I do to this?”
Coyote Cafe: 132 W Water St.; 505-983-1615
Maize: 225 Johnson St.; 505-780-5125
Eloisa: 228 E Palace Ave.; 505-982-0883
Anasazi Restaurant: 113 Washington Ave.; 505-988-3030