Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Three memorable Santa Fe dining experiences.

Early on, we promised reviews of some of the restaurants we patronized in Santa Fe during our stay. We fulfilled some of that promise with previous reviews. But we have only engaged in the first half of the mission for others. We actually ate at them.

Let’s pick up from there.

Coyote Café

A tile sign greets visitors to Coyote Cafe

This restaurant aptly epitomizes the split personality that is “The City Different” as Santa Feans like to call it. The split consist of the moneyed elite that reside in the cinco-mille-square-foot haciendas near the Santa Fe Opera. You can spot them on the street by their Southwest-chic attire with silver bolos on the men and diamonds on the women. This is not a put-down. This group is largely responsible for the philanthropy that supports cultural life in Santa Fe. The other half is the hipper, younger, world-traveler crowd that discovered Santa Fe for its Hispanic culture and new age life-styles..

Turning to the right at the top of the stairs leading to the second floor, you enter a tastefully decorated, white-tablecloth restaurant. The offerings in this subdued environment are worthy of the inflated prices that accompany the 5-course, prix fixe menu.

Being the proletarians we fancy ourselves to be, Susanne and I choose to turn left and enter the rooftop La Cantina. This is where a somewhat raucous bar overlaps into a casual dining area that transitions to an open area overlooking the street below.We have always enjoyed the loose ambience of the La Cantina, and its adventurous authentic Mexican ‘comida.’ The menu here includes antijitos such as “Santa Fe Favorite” BBQ Duck Quesadilla, a Susanne favorite as well. This time, however, she chose the Cuatro Tostadas; individual chicken, shrimp, beef and vegetable tostadas with tomatillo avocado, tequila habenero and chile arbol salsa.

My choice was the Cantina Classic Cubana Sandwich – roasted pork loin with ham, guacamole, chipotle sauce and black bean spread, served with red chile dusted plantain chips and salad verde.

Both were delightful taste experiences. We have never been dissatisfied at Coyote Café’s La Cantina. Next time we will try one of their mole dishes, such as Chicken Breast Oaxaqueno, featuring the spicy chocolate sauce that is key to the cooking of Oaxaca.

If you are looking for a Mexican, not New Mexican, dining experience in Santa Fe, we heartily endorse La Cantina, on the roof at Coyote Café.

Even though you enter via Coyote Cafe, La Cantina also has its own sign.


Located away from the plaza area, Maria’s is known primarily to resident Santa Feans.

Maria's unobtrusive street frontis well-known to regular residents of Santa Fe.

It also is known primarily for its margaritas. More than 100 are offered, ranging from a special Maria’s margarita made from Cuervo Gold tequila, Bols triple sec and fresh squeezed lemon juice, which will set you back about five bucks, to the 24-Karat Gold Reserva, featuring 100th Anniversary Hand Crafted Jose Cuervo 100% agave anejo barrel select Reserva de la Familia tequila and 150th Anniversary Cuvee speciale Cent-cinquantenaire Grand Marnier with fresh squeezed lemon juice. Set aside $40 for this one.

Maria's manager, Bernie, poses in of his back barr filled with tequila and triple sec.

Maria’s margaritas have been voted the Best in Santa Fe by the readers of the Santa Fe Reporter for 11 years in a row.. Perhaps it is because at Maria’s they know so much about the key ingredients, tequila and triple-sec.

Tequila is made only in Mexico, distilled from the sugary juices of the heart of the Weber Blue Agave plant. To be considered true tequila, it must be at least 51% agave sugar. A lower proportion results in a lesser product. The more pure agave juice, the better the tequila. Yeast is added for fermentation and the liquid is double filtered to result in a 40% alcohol liquid.

Incidentally, the Mexican government strictly regulates tequila producers and issues a NORMA number to those distillers that meet the standards. The N-O-M designation followed by four numerals indicates real tequila. Without that code, it simply is not real tequila.

The second liquor is triple-sec, a Cointreau brand liqeur distilled from the sun-dried skins of exotic oranges grown in the West Indies and shipped to France for reconstitution with distilled water, fermentation and triple distillation. While Cointreau is the preferred triple-sec, Bols brand also is used at Maria’s.

Some of Maria’s margaritas are made with Grand Marnier, a liqeur similar to triple sec that has been fortified with premium cognac and aged for 18 months. While lime juice is the traditional juice to be added, Maria’s uses freshly squeezed lemon juice because the juice is more consistent.

Finally, Maria’s margaritas are shaken with ice so that the ice chips off to dilute the mixed drink just enough. Blenders are not used because they produce too much chipped ice and water down the final flavor.

Maria’s recommends against shots or slammers of tequila. You miss the flavor nuances and intoxication can come quite quickly. Helpfully, on the latter point, Maria’s warns flat-landers that drinking alcohol in the higher, 6,000 foot altitude of Santa Fe can lead to absorption into the blood much faster. Designated drivers are recommended.

As for eats to accompany the drinks, try Maria’s famous barbecue ribs, billed as a Santa Fe tradition for 50 years, and quite tasty I can attest. Susanne raved about her vegetarian tamales, for the veggie lover in you. Don’t pass on the flan for dessert, by the way. It was one of the best we have had anywhere.


Let’s finish with breakfast, Tecolote’s specialty. Owner Bill Jennison actually states on the menu cover, “Great Breakfast – No Toast”.

Tecolote’s premises are located on Cerrillos Road, one of Santa Fe’s main thoroughfares leading toward the plaza area.

In addition to the traditional eggs-and-home-fries breakfast items, Tecolote offers Northern New Mexican breakfasts such as huevos rancheros, huevos Yucatecos, carne y huevos and breakfast burritos. Each is served with a bountiful bakery basket or tortillas.

One of the attractive aspects of Tecolote, however, is its homey, family ambiance, characterized by the patronage of locals. The local community involvement of Tecolote is demonstrated as you enter the front door. Tecolate means “owl” in the Nahuatl (Aztec Indian) language. Pictures of owls, usually drawn by youngsters who accompany their parents and grandparents to a Tecolote breakfast, adorn places of honor on the restaurant walls. These artistic expressions are encouraged by the Tecolote staff.

Tecolote manager, Chris, stands proudly by the owl works by junior artists.

Although owners, Bill and Alice Jennison named the restaurant in 1980 after an all-but-deserted, near-by town, they are pleased that the owl is such a celebrated critter in so many cultures. You’ll be wise to schedule at least one home-spun breakfast at the Tecolote. When you do, you’ll find Bill in back, baking up delicious muffins and biscuits to fill those bakery baskets. If you are like us, you will ask your server to put the uneaten bakery items in a box to take home with you. They will oblige with a smile.

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