Everyone can’t necessarily make Restaurant Week, but one can take a tour with Food Tour New Mexico anytime.
I signed up with Food Tour New Mexico for a day on the culinary trail to get a different perspective of Santa Fe cuisine. The tour included three restaurants (all of which were new to me) , a stop at an olive oil store, and the perfect end to a perfect day– a sampling of Pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican, Mayan and Aztec drinking chocolate elixirs.
I seldom take tours; I prefer to wander, but the prospect of food and stories lured me in. And Carlos Zozaya, our culinary guide for the day with Food Tour New Mexico, was the perfect person to combine both.
Food Tour New Mexico
The day for the restaurant tour arrived and a northerly wind swept the Plaza. Indians with their hand crafted jewelry lined up beneath the portico at the Palace of the Governors. Every day spots are allocated by a lottery system. Some artists travel hours to claim a place, but today many were empty. It’s not tourist season; it is winter and it is cold.
A curly haired, friendly fellow smiled and approached me. It was Carlos. Carlos is a big man, his size outweighed only by his friendliness. He puts everyone immediately at ease as he starts telling the tales of New Mexico’s food scene. He’s apprenticed in various restaurants; left New Mexico; returned to New Mexico; and is now firmly entrenched in the New Mexico culinary world.
As the group assembled, Carlos asked if we could handle margaritas before noon. Had he hinted that this would be the most perfect margarita, with the most perfect balance of slightly sweet, lime and tequila, no one could have said no.
And no one did.
San Francisco Bar and Grill
Food Tour New Mexico started with a bit of traditional New Mexican food at San Francisco Bar and Grill on the corner of Don Gaspar Avenue and East San Francisco Street.
Carlos’ enthusiasm is boundless and his culinary knowledge deep.
Cooking has always been his passion. As a child, he helped his grandmother in the kitchen. But as a young man, the world of New Mexico seemed too small and he left.
Now he laughs at his attempts to leave. “New Mexico is the Land of Entrapment!” he proclaims, echoing a local theme that mocks the state motto “Land of Enchantment”.
Because once New Mexico is in your blood, it is always so. When you try to leave, the indescribable pull of this remarkable place quietly, subtly, persistently pulls you back.
Carlos came back because leaving New Mexico made him realize just how special the local history, culture and food really are.
A mingling of Spanish, Mexican and Indian cultures has produced a place like no other. The Mexican traditions brought traditional foods and salsas (not red or green chile). The Indians brought native foods. A typical food might be Indian tacos fried like naan bread, topped with beans, according to Carlos.
The Spanish brought spices–paprika, cumin, cilantro–and smaller portions in tapas, and perhaps most importantly, in the 1600’s, the papilla pepper arrived. The climate in the Rio Grande Valleys was perfect: Hot days, warm nights mixed with the mineral content of the water and land gave the New Mexican chile a unique flavor profile that can’t be transported.
Chile preferences are a topic of passionate discussion in New Mexico.
How hot. How to prepare, store them and cook them. Ultimately the discussion comes to a pivotal question:
Red or Green?
This is a serious topic of debate.
Some say green chile is for chicken and pork. Some prefer red. Or red chile with meat, but certainly not green.
The difficulty of deciding has led to a compromise solution that everyone seems to accept:
Both Red and Green
AKA, Christmas style. That way everyday is a holiday in your mouth.
Why all the brouhaha? What’s the difference? Is it just heat? Flavor? Preference? Or perhaps a combination of all the above?
Let me see if I can summarize the dissertation of red versus green chile.
There are several cultivars of chile including New Mexico 6-4′, ‘Big Jim’, ‘Sandia’, and ‘No. 6’ and ‘No. 9’ . All chile start off green. When they’re allowed to ripen further they become red.
Same pepper, but two different products.
The Green Chile
The green chile is often eaten as a pepper. They may be layered with eggs, on burgers and made into sauces. Some say that the green chile tends to be a bit hotter, although I am inclined to believe it really depends on the preparation. I can’t eat anything too hot, but I adore green chile.
The skin of either the red or green chile isn’t digestible, so the pepper has to be roasted then peeled.
In Carlos’ house, his mother would purchase fifty pound bags of fresh green chile. They were roasted and sweated in large plastic bags. The sweating helps the skins slide off easily.
There are several methods to preparing chile. They can be roasted, peeled and frozen. They can be frozen with the skin in place. (The skins then pull off easily when defrosted.) One cook claims this leads to superior flavor.
Green chile can also be freeze dried, made into a powder, packaged and shipped. Green chile is often associated with chicken or pork, although there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to chile preferences.
The Red Chile
Red chile is a slightly different animal. Here is where the techniques start to differ. It is usually dried for storage. It then needs to be reconstituted.
Carlos explained that his mother would buy an edible (not lacquered) chile rista. The individual chile would be boiled in water, the water and stems discarded. Then she would fill the blender with garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, and oregano; blend it; strain it to catch seeds and skin; and pour the mixture into a pot and let it simmer. It would then be reduced or thickened with a cornstarch roux and served as a gravy. Some people sauté onions or garlic separately. There would appear to be as many variations as there are cooks.
The flavor of the New Mexican red chile can also be found in powder form, but to bring out the flavor, it needs to be bloomed, much like curry powder, by sautéing it first in oil.
Hatch chile have gained renown largely through a marketing program sponsored by the State of New Mexico. Why Hatch, New Mexico when chile are grown all along the Rio Grande? Hatch simply had a lot of land available!
The fame of the Hatch chile is what most people are most familiar with. The success of the New Mexican pepper has led to wannabe competitors. One town, Hatch, Colorado has tried to cash in on the growing popularity of Hatch chile by (legally) marketing peppers grown in Colorado as “Hatch Chile”. But only chile grown in New Mexico, and particularly the Rio Grande Valley, have the authentic flavor profile so prized.
The food at San Francisco Bar and Grill was simple New Mexican food: Chicken Enchiladas served with yellow rice and beans. And red chile sauce. And, of course, a most perfect margarita, made with good tequila, a nice squeeze of lime and lemon, and house made lemonade as a sweetener rather than triple sec.
As we ate, Carlos continued with his tale.
Leaving New Mexico, he explained, was kind of a blessing in disguise because it took leaving to appreciate that the rich history, the culture and the food simply doesn’t exist elsewhere. And sure enough, the Enchanted Land of Entrapment worked its magic, and thankfully for us, Carlos returned to his roots.
The Santa Fe restaurant scene is diverse, with everything from pan-Asian to traditional New Mexican.
Santacafe started with famed chef Ming Tsai overseeing the kitchen and is a Santa Fe favorite for good reason. Its low key elegance with lean decor, the historic building and the farm fresh, creative food will bring you back again and again. Located at 231 Washington Avenue, just a few blocks from the Plaza, the house was built between 1857 and 1862 by Jose Manuel Gallegos, a controversial defrocked priest cum politician. The property has been used as a church, a brothel, government offices, and now a beloved local restaurant.
The restored property has a patio for summer dining as well as two deep wells, one in the outdoor courtyard and one in the bar. And naturally, there is a story behind this.
The original outdoor well was publicly accessible and given Jose Gallegos’ sometimes controversial activities, there was concern over the safety of the drinking water. So an interior well was also built. It was rediscovered after a fire in the property, and is now (with a plexiglass top to prevent any patrons from taking a spill down the forty foot drop) part of the bar area, as well as the lore of the historic property .
Inside the decor is intentionally minimalistic, so that the food takes center stage. Crisp white table cloths and glistening glasses await the diner.
We started with a New Zealand Savignon Blanc which paired perfectly with a butternut squash soup, followed by Shiitake Mushroom & Cactus Spring Rolls w/ Southwestern Ponzu (a dipping sauce of soy, cilantro and red pepper flakes) and some Greek Salad, The ingredients are locally and carefully sourced and the attention to detail shows in every dish.
Bobby Morean, the owner since 1982, busily moves through the restaurant, making sure everything is perfect, from the homemade green chile bread and crackers, to the wine selection. His sense of fun and passion are intoxicating, as is the food. When in Santa Fe, this is a place to put on your dining list, either through the restaurant tour or on your own.
I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying this Santa Fe restaurant tour with Food Tour New Mexico. The food is fabulous, the stories told by Carlos are too much fun, and the breadth and scope of places offers a wonderful sampling of the culinary range in “The City Different”.
Next up is Eloisa, located on the ground floor of the Drury Plaza Hotel. The hotel has been recently renovated. In previous incarnations, it has been a hospital, a nursing home, government offices, and the basement was used to store Indian artifacts for a while.
It is also rumored to be haunted. Apparitions, voices and noises are said to inhabit the property.
But we experienced no such events. At least not on this day.
One enters through a foyer lined with from floor to ceiling with pictures of indigenous foods. The “Hall of History” is a fascinating photo homage to the indigenous food of several hundred years ago.
Some of the foods were familiar: fish, chicken, tamales. Others were more exotic: cactus, chile, prickly pears. And one was truly unique: Ants filled with honey nectar. The bloated ant pouches were allowed to harden and given to children as a sweet treat.
At this point after two previous stops, I have to admit that I’m slowing down a bit. But the food at Eloisa is not to be missed.
Blue corn muffins made without sugar have a natural sweetness from the flour. And accompanying them on our tasting menu is a Chile Relleno, stuffed with guyere cheese, mushroom, chorizo garbanzo and puree frise salad tossed in a vinagraitte. And the creative piece de resistance: Pastrami Tacos, made with spicy smoked beef, sauerkraut, pickled chiles, and ballpark mustard. Both served with a Spanish White wine.
As if this weren’t enough, we were treated to a taste of the mole the kitchen was preparing to serve with a deconstructed salmon pot pie for dinner. And perhaps the mole would find its way into a chocolate ice cream desert as well.
The sauce was wonderful. And there were two bowls for the table, which meant leftovers. Dianne, another woman on the tour, looked at me. I looked back. We both smiled, and divided up the left over mole to take home.
Santa Fe Olive Oil and Balsamic Company
Next stop on Food Tour New Mexico: Santa Fe Olive Oil and Balsamic Company where oil and balsamic vinegar come to dance. The selection is second to none and the range of vinegars will satisfy anyone’s palate, including locally inspired flavors such as prickly pear balsamic vinegar. It’s the prefect respite before desert.
Kakawa Chocolate House
What would a food tour be without dessert? Enter Kakawa Chocolate House.
Now I am not a big chocolate person. Some would consider this a character defect. But Kakawa has moved me closer to becoming a chocolate aficionado.
This is not your typical chocolatier. From their website:
“Our passion is authentic and historic drinking chocolates elixirs. Historic drinking chocolate elixirs include traditional Pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican, Mayan and Aztec drinking chocolate elixirs; 1600’s European drinking chocolate elixirs, Colonial American and Colonial Mexican drinking chocolate elixirs. Kakawa Chocolate House drinking chocolate elixirs are representative of these historic recipes and span the time period 1000 BC to the mid-1900s AD.”
Chocolate elixirs are listed on the board as you enter. We sampled several to choose a favorite. But equally amazing are the chocolate truffles. Dark chocolate and goat cheese rocked my boat. And there are dozens of combinations to choose from.
Kakawa is located on the Paseo de Peralta (the road that rings old Santa Fe) in a small house, just a bit off the tourist track. Make it a point to seek this place out. You’ll be glad you did.
Remember what I said about touristy things in Seattle? If sampling some great food in Santa Fe is of interest, Food Tour New Mexico is a must do.
Dinner restaurant tours in Santa Fe and Alburquerque are also available. More information on Food Tour New Mexico is available at www.FoodTourNewMexico.com.
Some Other Foodie Posts:
Tequila Tasting at the Inn of the Anasazi
The Irish Food Movement in the Beara Peninsula
Foodie Forays 2017
Culinary Travel Karma
Travel Lessons: Oysters and Whatnot
Warming Up To Restaurant Week in Santa Fe
Art, Flavor and Elegance at Restaurant Martin
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