Many people ask us about the “local Mexican cuisine.” While many of its roots lie in our neighbor to the south, the people who settled around Santa Fe developed distinctly local food-ways. Many Northern New Mexican restaurants feature recipes that have been passed down by the abuelas (grandmothers), tias (aunts) and madres (mothers) for generations.
New Mexican restaurants serve food that is centered around chile, both red and green, as well as the “three sisters” (beans, corn and squash), that the earliest Spanish settlers found Pueblo peoples cultivating, when they arrived. Such dishes as posole, calabacitas and chicos own their origins to this local bounty. We highly recommend trying New Mexican cuisine while you’re visiting Santa Fe. Just be prepared, it’s spicy! Ask to taste the chile before having your food “smothered” in it or order it on the side. There is a controversy about which is hotter, red or green. You decide.
Five New Mexican restaurants we love
Rancho de Chimayó
Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante, had a big year. They celebrated their 50th anniversary in October, 2015 and have just been named an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation. Octogenarian Florence Jaramillo started Rancho de Chimayó with her former husband Arturo in 1965. She still presides over the restaurant, housed in the historic Chimayó home that once belonged to Arturo’s grandparents. The popular eatery, known for serving local Northern New Mexican regional cuisine, is worth the 45 minute drive from the city. Combine it with a visit to this historic hamlet known for the Santuario de Chimayó, known for its reported healing miracles, its distinctive weaving style and its distinctive Chimayó red chile. Rancho de Chimayó uses recipes that have been handed down through generations of the Jaramillo family. They use local ingredients whenever possible; just about everything is made from scratch. In the early years they grew their own chile but they gave it up. We hear that this summer they will begin to grow them again as they can’t source enough local chile each year to meet their needs. Favorite dishes here include carne adovada (pork marinated and cooked in red chile); posole (dried corn kernels made into a stew), tamales; and sopapillas (puffed fried dough either eaten with the meal or as a dessert). Start your meal with a Prickly Pear margarita. This is a popular place and we highly recommend making reservations for both lunch and dinner. Our favorite spots to dine are the enclosed porch or in summer on the tiered back patio.
The Shed, another James Beard American Classic, is located a convenient half a block from the Plaza. Thornton and Polly Carswell opened the eatery, which offers their take on traditional New Mexican fare since 1960. Today, the third generation of the Carswell family carries on the tradition. The Shed is located in the historic Sena Plaza complex on East Palace Avenue. The rambling building, dating to the 1830s, was originally home to the Sena family. Diners are greeted by a warren of small, charming dining rooms. They take red chile seriously here and grind their own daily. The menu offers a range of tacos and enchiladas including traditional blue corn enchiladas. Their signature dish: red chile cheese and onion blue corn enchiladas. The Shed has one interesting departure, they don’t serve sopapillas, the popular fried dough pillows found in most Northern New Mexican Restaurants. It’s a holdover from when the restaurants early days. This popular eatery is almost always busy. While they do take dinner reservations, there’s almost always a wait for a table for lunch unless you arrive right by 11:30. If you have to wait, head for the bar and order one of their signature margaritas made with freshly-squeezed lime juice or browse nearby shops.
The La Choza (the shack), opened by the Carswell family in 1983, is the sister restaurant to The Shed. Set on tiny Alarid Street in the Railyard District adjacent to the train tracks, it’s a bit out of the way and hard to find, but well-worth the effort. Started as a take-out lunch restaurant it quickly gained popularity and table service was added. While The Shed tends to get a lot of tourists, customers here tend ot be mostly local folks. La Choza is also known for its red chile. Best sellers are the stacked blue corn enchiladas, stuffed sopapillas, crispy tacos and chile rellenos. The green chile clam chowder offering a traditional New Mexican favorite coupled with a taste of New England is also popular. Start your meal with chips and salsa and an icy Start your meal with a frosty margarita. Try the Sangre de Christo Margarita, made with blood orange liquor and blood orange puree or build your own. If they have it in the kitchen, they’ll add it to your drink. Unlike The Shed, meals at La Choza come with sopapillas. Eat them with your food or save them for dessert. Just add honey. In summer, request seating on the shady patio. Reservations are strongly recommended for dinner.
Want to dine where the locals go? Head for Atrisco Café & Bar in the DeVargas Mall. Locals come here for the traditional comidas nativas de Nuevo Mexico (northern New Mexican cuisine). Owner George Gundrey, former Executive Director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market, has a strong commitment to fresh and locally grown and produced foods and has brought this passion to his restaurant. He sources food from area growers whenever he can. His natural (hormone and antibiotic-free) beef and lamb are raised by local ranchers who follow an over 400-year-old New Mexican tradition. Atrisco’s signature dish, roast leg of lamb burritos, pays homage to this heritage. The restaurant is named for Albuquerque’s Atrisco Barrio where Gundrey’s grandmother Sophia ran the Central Café at the corner of Atrisco Boulevard and Central Avenue from the 1940s to the 1970s. He’s the third generation of his family in the restaurant business. Gundrey also runs, Tomasita’s, the New Mexican restaurant in the Railyard started by his mother Georgia in the early 1970s. The restaurant open for lunch and dinner also serves breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays.
Café Castro (originally Castro’s El Comal) was opened in 1990. The New Mexican restaurant, owned by Julia and Carlos Castro, is across from Jackalope on Cerrillos Road. Julia, whose roots go back to both the Pueblo people and Spanish conquistadores, uses many of her family’s recipes. Others came from the original Tomasita’s where Carlos worked at one time. This is a place mostly frequented by locals though you’ll find savvy tourists here as well. The food is good and prices are reasonable. Café Castro is known for their sopapillas and their Chile Caribe (red chile) with its rich roasted flavor and menudo (tripe). The carne adovada, cooked in that wonderfully spicy red, is a winner. Both Castros are hands-on and there’s a “mom and pop” feeling here. Many of of the friendly staff members have been here almost since the beginning. If you’re looking for a local dining experience and like spicy food head for Café; a few generations of Santa Feans have grown up eating here.
There are lots of other really good New Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe and the surrounding area. While you’re here, try at least one. And, you may not be able to stop at one. The food is pretty addictive!
What’s your favorite Santa Fe New Mexican restaurant?
Prepare yourself for the hot chile that you’ll find in New Mexican restaurants. Read about how I learned to love New Mexico’s famous hot chile.