Chile leaves you cold? “The City Different” has great food of all kinds—and one-of-a-kind experiences
By Faye S. Wolfe
For lovers of chile-based food, Santa Fe will always be a premier destination. But if spicy food is not your cup of tea, know that chiles are not the be-all and end-all of Santa Fe cooking.
The City Different has plenty of cool cuisines to savor—and lots to do besides eat. The Santa Fe Opera, Lensic Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe Playhouse, great museums, gallery-lined Canyon Road… the list of cultural attractions goes on.
As does the list of other kinds of experiences: cooking classes, pottery workshops, chocolate tastings, spa days, walking tours, and more.
With a population of about 70,000, it’s a very walkable, human-scale city. Free shuttles (the Santa Fe Pick-up), and public transit make exploring easy.
Here’s a look at what’s on the cultural and culinary menus of Santa Fe.
Around the Plaza
The heart of Santa Fe is its 400-year-old Plaza. Steps away are museums, St. Francis Cathedral, handsome examples of local architecture—and Tia Sophia’s, a good place to start your downtown tour. Tourists and locals alike gravitate to this friendly spot, open since 1975.
The standard breakfast fare (eggs, pancakes, French toast) is excellent; but the draw is classics with a southwestern twist: scrambled eggs in a tortilla with guacamole and beans, chile and cheese omelets. For lunch, they serve up tostadas, enchiladas, taco plates.
Prices are reasonable, portions generous; the atmosphere down-to-earth. The fanciest thing about it is the set of sequined sombreros on the wall. (A nice touch: a bookcase full of children’s picture books.)
With one of Tia Sophia’s famed breakfast burritos under your belt, you’ll be ready for a morning of imbibing art. Starting in the 1920s, New Mexico saw an influx of artists from all over.
The New Mexico Museum of Art, kitty-corner to the Plaza, exhibits the creative output of the finest—Andrew Dasburg, Gustave Baumann, Marsden Hartley, Robert Henri, Georgia O’Keeffe—not to mention, works by gifted artists born and bred in New Mexico, such as Maria Martinez and Awa Tsireh.
Since it opened in 1997, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum has steadily added to its impressive collection, now totaling more than 3,000 works. In 1929, at age 41, the creator of archetypal paintings of flowers and cattle skulls fell in love with New Mexico. In 1949, she moved there permanently. It’s a unique pleasure to immerse yourself in her masterpieces, then step outside and see the sky, the colors, the topography she loved and painted.
Can’t stay away from the heat of New Mexican food? Get into the kitchen of the Santa Fe School of Cooking, a few minutes’ walk from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
In a sleek space behind a shop loaded with cookware and comestibles, food professionals step you through how to make tamales, hot sauces, and both traditional and contemporary Southwestern dishes.
The classes are as entertaining as they are instructive. Allan Smith, for instance, ably assisted by Noé Cano, seasons his demonstrations with tidbits of chemistry, botany, global economics, New Mexican history—and a dry wit.
Just off the Plaza, The Shed is a Santa Fe institution, 65 years old and going strong. In season, you can dine in its courtyard; inside, rooms open into rooms (nine in all) crowded with both Santa Feans and out-of-towners who get their kicks from chile cuisine.
Enchiladas made with blue corn tortillas, tacos, and burritos (also made with blue corn) all plump with authentic fillings such as pinto beans and cheddar, get their kick from chile. The Shed’s award-winning red chile sauce is made on the premises from peppers grown for the restaurant in Hatch, New Mexico, the “Chile Capital of the World.”
Before New Mexico, there was Mexico. Its cuisine stars at the elegant Sazón on Shelby Street. You may think you know what mole is but, says Chef Fernando Olea, the sauce takes many, many forms, and he loves to introduce diners to his variations like the mole verde served with fresh fish.
The Oaxaquenos appetizer features another foodstuff you may not have met before: chapulines, baby grasshoppers, on guacamole and a corn tortilla. Sazón’s signature dessert, Dulce Sinfonia, fires each taste bud in turn with the flavors of avocado ice cream, beet sauce, ginger, caramel and jalapeño.
Beyond the Plaza
The revitalized Railyard district, just southwest of downtown, is home to arts organizations, theaters, galleries, restaurants, shops, and the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. Saturdays year-round, vendors and shoppers pack the indoor barn of a place.
During the warmer months, they spill over into the open-air spaces, where a stroll amid the giddying abundance of fresh, local, colorful, beautiful goods—artichokes! tomatoes! peaches! marigolds!—gets the senses buzzing and the endorphins flowing.
Besides seasonal produce, stalls display baguettes, beeswax candles, cheeses, garlic, goat’s milk soap, grass-fed beef, herbs, lavender sachets, organic yarn, pecans, propulis tinctures, wines, yak jerky—and of course chiles.
A mile or so down the road, the owners of Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen, Fiona Wong and Soma Franks, bring fusion flair to Santa Fe cooking. Their menu invites everyone in: vegans, vegetarians, paleo eaters, those who like it hot, and those who do not. The breakfast tacos are loaded with avocado; red chile punches up the paleo burrito.
The flour in their lemon-ricotta spelt pancakes is organic and ground right on the premises. Ditto the flour for the buckwheat (gluten-free) banana pancakes. A sampling of the dinner menu: patata bravas, yucca root flatbread pizza, salmon donburi, and Korean BBQ chicken.
After Sweetwater, loop back to the Railyard district and the cheerful Baca Street Pottery. With advance notice, the gallery-studio can set up a 1½-2-hour workshop for four to eight people, including families with kids.
They provide the clay, tools, and tips for you to make a plate for your bizcochitos (the official New Mexico cookie), then fire and ship your creations to you later.
Even the address of Opuntia, also in the Railyard district, is charming: 922 Shoofly Street. A bright space with clean lines, it’s a cafe and greenhouse in one.
The plants are as special as the food, but if stowing a succulent in your suitcase isn’t an option, you can still sip pretty-in-pink prickly pear tea. (FYI: Opuntia is the Latin name for the prickly pear cactus.)
As well as having a choice selection of teas and espresso, etc., Opuntia’s menu includes such diverse dishes as Vietnamese peppered chicken legs and wings, a polenta bowl, avocado toast, and possibly the best grilled cheese sandwich you’ll ever eat.
A bit farther south, a transformed bowling alley houses the immersive art installation Meow Wolf, photogenic as a kitten and mysterious as a canis lupus. The experience begins in a life-size mockup of a Victorian house.
The lights are on, but nobody’s home. Step through the refrigerator and wend your way through a day-glo grove and other trippy spaces.
Who lived in the house? What happened to them? Mailboxes and computer screens hold clues, but you can also skip sussing out the secrets and just enjoy Meow Wolf as the wildest, weirdest art gallery around.
The nearby Kakawa House of Chocolate yields a different sensory experience. No surprise, chile is a key ingredient in some of the confections owners Bonnie and Tony Bennett and staff produce on-site, but their experiments with other unusual ingredients, a goat cheese and sage truffle, for example, are as delightful.
Kakawa is known for its elixirs, including “Aztec Warrior,” “1692 French Lavender,” and “Chocolate Chai,” rich chocolate drinks based on historical recipes, served in blue-and-white china cups made especially for Kakawa.
Ten thousand waves, a hot spring, and spa outside of Santa Fe.
To the North
A ten-minute drive from downtown takes you half a world away, to Ten Thousand Waves, a retreat modeled on Japanese mountain inns. You can spend a day there, letting your weary-traveler self-unwind in steamy soaking pools, soaking up the clear, piñon-scented air, getting a massage or other spa treatments, eating at the restaurant. You can also spend the night in one of the subtly luxurious rooms of the Houses of the Moon.
Terra, the restaurant at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado, is equally transporting. In balmy weather, savor the sunset, and a cocktail, on its patio. When the temperature drops, you can still relish the view from the dining room, itself a dramatic space, with high ceilings, tall windows, and a soaring stone fireplace.
You could make a meal just from starters like the ahi tuna and seared scallops, but then you’d miss out on delectable entrées, including grilled prawns, the blue corn tamale, and roasted sea bass. The service and presentation are impeccable, no more than you’d expect of a Four Seasons restaurant.
Head for the Hill…
You can happily spend hours upon hours in the four museums at Museum Hill. To mention one, the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) has 130,000 objects, the largest folk art collection in the world, and it seems as if all of them are on display in its Girard Wing.
It’s the ultimate cabinet of curiosities, a vast space layered floor to ceiling with amazing objects: dolls, pottery, puppets, wood carvings, jewelry, textiles, religious artworks, you-name-it, from everywhere: Northern New Mexico to the islands of Oceania. Also irresistible: the tramp art exhibition.
Steps away from the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum Hill Cafe provides a picturesque setting for lunch and Sunday brunch. In warm weather, dining on the deep porches, overlooking the high desert landscape, can’t be beat.
With items both familiar (quiche, Reubens, Angus beef burgers) and distinctive (sweet corn custard with poblano cream sauce, the Café Pollo bowl), the menu delivers on owner Weldon Fulton’s commitment to serving “good, fresh, straightforward food.”
Take the Art Road
About 100 years ago, artists started setting up studios on mile-long Canyon Road. Today it’s lined with dozens of galleries, whose proprietors seem as down-to-earth as the historic adobe buildings they occupy.
If you stop by Winterowd Fine Art, for instance, Karla Winterowd might talk about how art has the power to change how you look at the world –or tell you about a baby whose parents let her choose a painting from the gallery.
For Neema Sadeghi, owner-chef of Milad Persian Bistro, at 802 Canyon Road, authenticity is key, still, he loves to tweak traditional recipes. The savory carrot falafels come capped with a slice of serrano pepper; sesame chili oil and scallions hot up lamb dumplings.
His tender baklava is a far cry from the hard-as-rock variety found in some Middle Eastern restaurants.
The honey drizzled over this dessert accents, doesn’t drown out, the flavors of the nutty filling and the crispy pastry, and the bistro’s rich Persian-style coffee makes an excellent accompaniment. Sadeghi is open to fresh pairings but be warned, he draws the line at ketchup.
Where to Stay
La Fonda on the Plaza, Santa Fe’s oldest hotel, has thoroughly modern amenities. The rooms feature one-of-a-kind hand-painted headboards and original art, including tile “paintings” in the showers.
More art in the public areas, a magical dining room in the enclosed atrium, the rooftop Bell Tower Bar with wonderful views, and its central location all make this a super place to stay.
Within its walls, the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza incorporates part of a 300-year-old hacienda. Rooms are understated and spacious. Deep comfy couches face a massive fireplace in the lobby with equally massive vigas (roof beams).
Striking Native American weavings decorate the halls, and the Ortiz restaurant offers an expansive breakfast buffet.