Sensational Santa Fe, New Mexico

Fabulous art, plaza and views at Museum Hill overlooking Santa Fe

Fabulous art, plaza and views at Museum Hill overlooking Santa Fe

What can I say about Santa Fe? It’s a funky, artsy place with a much bigger cultural footprint than its population of 70,000 adobe-style- dwelling folks would suggest. It boasts some 300 art galleries, the third most in all of America, and has a summer-long opera in a semi-outdoor theatre. Its Museum Hill houses the world-class Museum of International Folk Art and Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (the latter’s gift shop had the best, affordable southwest jewelry we saw in New Mexico). And its Railyard district, close to downtown, features the fine Santa Fe Farmers Market (Tuesday and Saturday mornings) and some avant-garde galleries.

At any of these places, you’ll see elegant, gray-haired women with arresting eyewear, jewelry and haircuts; if they’re not active or retired artists, they’re certainly patrons of the arts. In sum, Santa Fe is one of the few U.S. mountain state cities I would list as a destination in its own right.

What's a visit to Santa Fe without a gallery opening?

What’s a visit to Santa Fe without a gallery opening?

Not surprisingly, Santa Fe has attracted an enviable list of top chefs. While many of their innovative restaurants are beyond the price range of this road-trip blog, there are still lots of tasty, creative choices for the frugal traveller. Though this may be a place where you splurge once or twice.

I pull into *Counter Culture Cafe, in a dusty parking lot off Cerrillos Road, thinking I’ll just get a coffee. But I walk in to discover a full-scale eatery, with big plates of huevos, pancakes, meatball sandwiches and cold sesame noodles swinging by. You name it, they’ve got it (even huge, icing-slathered cinnamon rolls), living up to their motto “every entree served anytime.” I opt for something light—brie and Chimayo-chile walnuts alongside seasonal fruit—chased by a full-bodied Americano. CCC has that Santa Fe retro rustic look, with concrete floors, aluminum chairs and plexiglass-covered pine tables. It’s a nice place to hang out, and work your way through the menu.

The Counter Culture Cafe has a cozy, retro feel along with a fine, eclectic menu

The Counter Culture Cafe has a cozy, retro feel along with a fine, eclectic menu

Counter Culture Cafe
930 Baca Street, Santa Fe
Sunday-Monday 8 am-3 pm, Tuesday to Saturday 8 am-9 pm. Cash only
Counter Culture on Urbanspoon

Tecolote Cafe, a relaxed family-run place since 1980, definitely has a catchy slogan: Great Breakfast, No Toast. Instead of the latter, you get a basket with a mini biscuit, muffin and cinnamon roll, or a tortilla. Tecolote also has a twist on New Mexican breakfast standards. Its Huevos Yucatecos, for instance, surrounds the usual tortilla, eggs, cheese and chile mix with fried bananas. And my Sheepherder’s Breakfast is a delightfully refreshing bowl of grilled new potatoes, jalapenos and onion, topped with red and green chile, melted cheddar and my choice of two poached eggs. The menu warns the restaurant is not responsible for the chile being too hot, but I find the lingering heat just right. Oh, Tecolote actually does serve toast but just the French variety, from one of six house-made breads.

Rounding up some eggs in my Sheepherder's Breakfast at Tecolote Cafe

Rounding up some eggs in my Sheepherder’s Breakfast at Tecolote Cafe

Tecolote Cafe
1203 Cerrillos Road (a block from Counter Culture Café), Santa Fe
Tuesday to Sunday 7 am-2 pm. Closed Monday
Tecolote Cafe on Urbanspoon

I’ve already covered *Bobcat Bite in a recent best burger post: Forget being my first green chile cheeseburger. It was in the top five burgers I’ve ever eaten: 10 ounces of medium-rare heaven. The bad news is a rental dispute recently forced Bobcat to move out of its low-beamed character joint. The good news is the owners are relocating to Garrett’s Desert Inn and renaming the place Santa Fe Bite, with a planned opening date of late summer 2013.

The name and the location's changing, but there's no disguising these fantastic green chile cheeseburgers at Santa Fe Bite

The name and the location’s changing, but there’s no disguising these fantastic green chile cheeseburgers at Santa Fe Bite

Santa Fe Bite
311 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe
Wednesday to Saturday 11 am-8 pm, Sunday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday
Bobcat Bite Restaurant on Urbanspoon

I practically wilted when I bit into this croissant at Clafoutis

I practically wilted when I bit into a buttery croissant at Clafoutis

It’s disconcerting in Santa Fe to be greeted with “Bonjour, monsieur.” But at *Clafoutis, I’m truly entering a French cafe and all the excellence and attention to detail that brings. It’s a world where baker/co-owner Philippe Ligier turns out mouth-watering brioche, tartine (like a little pizza), tarte au fromage and chewy baguettes, along with fruit tarts to die for. There’s a full breakfast and lunch menu, but I go for the early morning simplicity of a superb double-shot Americano, without too much diluting water, and a warm, plain croissant (a bargain $1.85). The latter is such a perfect combination of buttery, flaky and soft that I quickly order a second. Clafoutis is situated in a beautifully restored old building, with a washed-wood ceiling and artful decorations, naturally, on the walls. This place has it all: excellence, creativity, ambience and charm. If you hit only one place in Santa Fe for a coffee and sinful treat, make it here. “Au revoir. Bonne journee,” says elegant Anne-laure Ligier as I leave. “A bientot.”

Co-owner Anne-laure Ligier brings French elegance to Clafoutis

Co-owner Anne-laure Ligier brings French elegance to Clafoutis

Clafoutis
402 North Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe
Monday to Saturday 7 am-4 pm. Closed Sunday
Clafoutis on Urbanspoon

I’m not a big fan of Santa Fe’s tourist-centric downtown core, but I realize most visitors want to wander past, and through, the high-end shops and to check the historic plaza off their list. Okay, you’ve already paid for parking or walked a ways to get here. You might as well get something to eat and drink. Luckily, there are two good choices, at either end of a third-floor mall. Even better, you can hit both without leaving your seat.

Let’s start things off with a pint at Marble Brewery’s Santa Fe Taproom. From the 10 or so beers on tap, I get an excellent Irish Red seasonal, glad I order a 21.5-ounce glass so I can savour its full-bodied, well-rounded flavour. On a nice day or evening, you can join the masses on the taproom’s patio, overlooking said historic plaza.

Now, this is what I call a pint: 21.5 ounces of liquid amber at Marble Brewery Taproom

Now, this is what I call a pint: 21.5 ounces of liquid amber at Marble Brewery Taproom

Marble Brewery Taproom
60 East San Francisco Street, Santa Fe
Sunday to Thursday noon-11 pm, Friday-Saturday noon to midnight
Marble Brewery Tap Room on Urbanspoon

If you don’t feel like moving down the beautifully-covered tile corridor, you can order a savoury pie from *Rooftop Pizzeria right from Marble Brewery’s Taproom. Indeed, I watch a server constantly hustling duck and artichoke and fresh mozzarella pizzas down the hallway to beer-swilling patrons. Rooftop boasts arguably the best thin-crust pizza in New Mexico. I pick a New Mexican theme for my plentiful 12-incher—green chile with a fair kick, toasted piñon nuts and a blue-corn crust—alongside tender chunks of chicken, cotya and asadero cheese and alfredo sauce. It goes down nicely with another pint of red.

Chicken, piñon nuts and a blue-corn crust add up to a fabulous pie at Rooftop Pizzeria

Chicken, piñon nuts and a blue-corn crust add up to a fabulous pie at Rooftop Pizzeria

Rooftop Pizzeria
60 East San Francisco Street, Santa Fe
Sunday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm, with slightly reduced winter hours
Rooftop Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Like folks in many parts of the world, New Mexicans can be particular about their cuisine. So it is with enchiladas, typically a chicken-and-cheese-filled tortilla doused in chile sauce. Rolled and side-by-side is best, say some. No, say others, get them stacked, with chile sauce between and on top of the layers (and sometimes with an egg on top). At *The Shed, a downtown adobe hacienda and Santa Fe landmark for six decades, I go for stacked, just to see what the fuss is about. I’m not normally a fan of the undistinguished rice and mashed beans that come with much Mexican food. But the accompanying pinto beans here are whole and flavourful, as is the posole—a hominy-like corn stewed with pork, garlic and red chile. As for stacked versus rolled, I can’t say. I’m too bowled over by the red chile this third generation of the the Carswell family is rightly famous for. Using chiles from the New Mexican mecca of Hatch, The Shed’s version is freshly ground, thick and concentrated, the best I’ve had on this three-week eating journey. Only at meal’s end do I notice the two pieces of French garlic bread, which I use to sop up the last bits of chile.

I went for the stacked enchiladas at The Shed, but it was the red chile that blew me away

I go for the stacked enchiladas at The Shed, but it’s the red chile that blows me away

The Shed
113-1/2 East San Francisco Street
Monday to Saturday, lunch 11 am-2:30 pm, dinner 5:30 pm-9 pm. Closed Sunday
Shed Creative Cooking on Urbanspoon

Forget the chains when it comes to fast-food Mexican. Instead, seek out independent, hole-in-the-wall gems like El Parasol, which has grown from a little taco stand in the late 1950s to five family-owned New Mexico locations, each marked by a colourful umbrella logo. I go to the Cerrillos Road location twice—once for a warm breakfast burrito filled with egg, potato, cheese, chorizo and chile and again at lunch for a nice, handmade chicken tamale and a deep-fried shredded beef taco. It’s good, authentic stuff for only a few bucks. It’s mostly a takeout place, with benches around the spartan perimeter for waiting or hoovering down your food.

Handmade chicken tamale and deep-fried beef taco at El Parasol

Handmade chicken tamale and deep-fried beef taco at El Parasol

El Parasol
1833 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe
Monday to Friday 7 am-8 pm, Saturday 8 am-7 pm, Sunday 9 am-3 pm
El Parasol - Santa Fe North on Urbanspoon

For me, the atmosphere at Tune-Up Café shares top billing with the food. Set in a quiet neighbourhood away from the tourist mobs (other than devoted fans of the Food Channel’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), the restaurant welcomes customers with festive outdoor lighting and an indoor, informal intimacy of mostly local, younger people sharing long tables. The lone bathroom is also worth checking out for its big bouquets of fresh and artificial flowers and a nice ceramic sculpture on the wall. The El Salvadoran influence of chef Jesus Rivera can be found in tamales wrapped in banana leaves, pupusas (thick, crispy cornmeal tortillas stuffed with flank steak and cheese), and mole chicken enchiladas.

The Tune-Up Cafe is a character place matched by some fine El Salvadoran-influenced food

The Tune-Up Cafe is a character place matched by some fine El Salvadoran-influenced food

Tune Up Cafe
1115 Hickox Street, Santa Fe
Weekdays 7 am-10 pm, weekends 8 am-10 pm
Tune-Up Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Museum Hill Cafe is one of the best lunch stops in Santa Fe, almost for the location alone. It’s situated on the lofty, expansive patio between several great museums and beside magnificent sculptures and gardens. There’s great art on the cafe walls inside and expansive views outside of the valley below and mountains beyond. The food is tasty and inventive, with menu specials such as beef and mint soup, curried lentil salad or, when we visit, a Mediterranean plate of dolmades, lamb wrapped in cabbage, pierogies and Greek salad. Top it off with a nice Illi-brewed coffee or Italian espresso and you’re ready for a couple more hours of museum wandering.

A fabulous Mediterranean plate at the Museum Hill Cafe

A fabulous Mediterranean plate at the Museum Hill Cafe

Museum Hill Cafe
706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe
Tuesday to Sunday 11 am-3 pm. Closed Monday
Museum Hill Cafe on Urbanspoon

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