More than at most destinations, the landscape plays an intimate role in the dining scene in Santa Fe. A restaurant's adobe walls stand stark against the royal blue sky. Silvery cottonwoods shade crowded patios. Ristras, the wreaths of dried red chiles, hang near kitchen doors. Mountains bathe in a trick of light that turns them violet; they loom nobly through dining room windows. New Mexico is one of my favorite places, but on this visit it especially struck me how much the state's earthen beauty can enhance a meal.
Santa Fe is, inescapably, a tourist town, and the restaurants tend to be polarizing: willfully scruffy, or expensive and precious (though a few manage to be all those things). These five restaurants—a few standbys and a couple new entrants—proved largely rewarding, and the glorious backdrop lessened even the occasional letdown.
Pasqual's, along with The Shed and Bobcat Bite (now Santa Fe Bite), is one of Santa Fe's most trafficked restaurants. Since Katharine Kagel opened her business (named for San Pasqual, patron saint of cooks and kitchens) in 1978, people have been spilling out of its swinging turquoise door during all hours. Piñatas and strings of papel picado splatter color from the ceiling. Servers hustle out plates yet they don't hurry customers out of their seats. It may have the trappings of an old hippy enclave, but don't be fooled: At dinner a wedge of warm brie goes for $15.75 and an entree of scallops with orange-saffron butter costs $37.75. The restaurant sits a block from the city's picturesque plaza, and the atmosphere doesn't come cheap.
Which is why breakfast is the time to come. The dishes intone the flavors of New Mexico and they're more affordable (though still pricier than the average breakfast). No one leaves hungry after ordering cross-cultural heaps like huevos barbacoa con chile d'arbol salsa—long-simmered beef in a gently spicy broth with black beans, crumbly cotija cheese, and two eggs any style (go for poached with runny yolks). A bowl of griddled polenta sloshed with red chile sauce, chorizo, and eggs (scrambled work better here) radiates a more aggressive heat. This is a populist restaurant, so the food is not all flamed with chiles: cheese blintzes with strawberry jam and sour cream, corned beef hash, and whole wheat pancakes all satisfy. Lean toward the regional-inspired dishes, nonetheless.
Atrisco Cafe & Bar
In Santa Fe, even the shopping malls are picturesque adobe. Case in point: the DeVargas Center on the east side, which houses one of several restaurants around town that have been run by the same Greek-New Mexican family for decades. Atrisco, named for a community in Albuquerque, opened in 2009. The simple interior's most striking feature is wooden slats, painted sky blue, set above the bar to create a pergola effect.
Come here for an immersion course in straight-up, no-frills New Mexican cooking: blue corn enchiladas, tacos, green chile stew (often made with pork but here using beef), carne adovada (pork in red chile sauce), and of course a green chile cheeseburger. A burrito stuffed with roasted leg of lamb from Santa Fe's Talus Wind Ranch is a novelty I've never seen before. It comes with a choice of green or red chile sauces; request both, which in the local parlance is asking for "Christmas." A plate of sustaining food cloaked half in a chunky sauce of fresh green chiles and half in smooth, almost rippling sauce made from dried red chiles epitomizes New Mexico. The fruity and dusky flavors merge and evolve as you eat; a swirl of melted cheese calms the chiles' bite.
The AtrisCombo—one chile relleno stuffed with green chile and a blue corn enchilada with red chile, sides of posole and pintos, and a beef taco in a crispy shell stringy with cheese—will seem mighty familiar to fans of Tex-Mex. New Mexicans might be prickly about the comparison, but it is apt.
One of Izanami's line cooks and I struck up a conversation in the hot tub. For my dinner in an hour, he especially recommended the grilled chicken skewers wrapped in shiso leaves, the tonkatsu, and, for a splurge, the two ounces of grilled wagyu beef for $36. The setting for our chat wasn't unusual given where we were: Ten Thousand Waves, Santa Fe's famous Japanese spa nestled in the ponderosa forest just outside of town. Late last year, the spa fulfilled a longstanding wish among locals by opening a restaurant on the property. Now visitors can relax for two or three hours and then enjoy a meal yards away.
Izanami is open daily from 11 a.m to 10 p.m., serving the same menu of small plates overseen by Kim Müller, a veteran chef whose previous stints include The Compound on tony Canyon Road in town. Even without a massage and a soak, the restaurant would unwind the senses. A waterfall trickles down jutting stones outside the door. The patio on the far end of the building looks out over the mountains. Paper lanterns emit a silky glow inside. The owners sent Müller to Japan to absorb its food culture, which she translates here faithfully. The flavors are grounded and direct: julienned carrot and burdock root flecked with black sesame seeds; hijiki, the frilly black seaweed, composed in a salad with edamame, English peas, and miso-tofu dressing; a traditional presentation of tonkatsu, panko-breaded pork cutlet, with cabbage and hot mustard and a squiggle of sweet, inky miso sauce. The cook was right about the chicken skewers. The grill's heat subdued the shiso leaf's assertive minty qualities and left the pieces of meat tender but slightly smoky.
I bypassed the steak splurge for the gratifying burger gussied up with asadero cheese, caramelized onions, and bacon. Only desserts dabble in Americanization, including a small, moist cake crowned with slivered strawberries, or cheesecake perked with sweet-sour yuzu.
Santa Fe may be a world onto itself, but it isn't immune to fluctuating trends: Italian trattorias, the latest iteration of Asian-fusion, and New American strivers come and go just like in any U.S. city. It's been a while since Santa Fe had a charming Gallic bistro, and Charles Dale, a native of France who has cooked locally for years, gives Bouche its creds. He opened the place in February 2013 to steady business. Locals and habitués likely appreciate the break from green chile overload.
The kitchen delivers honest, sure-handed bistro cooking. A terrine layered with red peppers, spinach, zucchini, and yellow squash tastes clean and bright, particularly with forkfuls swiped through tomato vinaigrette. A crock of escargot exudes garlic, bone marrow is all textbook unctuousness, and sweetbreads flaunted an exterior crispness that gave way to creamy richness. Crowds huddle near a fireplace in the dining room on chilly nights and spread out on the handsome patio in the warm months. Frankly, it's an earnest place run by a skilled staff, but for visitors with a solid bistro close to home it doesn't need to be on their to-do list. My meal's most vivid moment came from the profiteroles, correct with a tender pastry and cold, quality vanilla ice cream and irresistible in the moment when the server poured over chocolate sauce in grand slow-mo food-porn fashion. That's a dessert worth scarfing down anywhere in the world.
Kakawa Chocolate House
And speaking of theobroma cacao, this sweet adobe storefront in the center of town makes chocolate truffles and caramels, come-hither brownies and velvety ice creams. But the unique draw is its intense sipping chocolates infused with both Meso-American and European flavors. The former means potions like the Mayan, enriched with coconut sugar, chiles, Mexican vanilla, and enigmatic herbs and spices. From across the Atlantic, the Marie-Antoinette, a sweeter concoction with almond milk, orange blossom water, canella, and vanilla. Arrive earlier in the day lest the best variations sell out. And yes, once you're hooked, the store does sell packaged versions of their drink mixes.