Visitors to Santa Fe often ask, “Where should we go for New Mexican food?” Some expect Mexican or Tex-Mex style food. While the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment has similarities to both, it has a unique and regional character. You’ll see differences in the traditional foods found in the northern and southern parts of the state. Before you sample Northern New Mexican cooking, there are a few things you should know.
One of the most important ingredients in the local cuisine is the chile pepper. Mostly, they’re grown in Hatch in southern NM, but in Santa Fe, you often find Chimayó and other northern varieties. The really important part here is it’s SPICY. If you don’t have a palate that shrugs heat off, ask to taste it before getting it on your food. Most restaurants don’t let you send back the food if it’s too hot. And remember, sour cream can be your best friend if you need to cool the dish down.
Santa Fe’s signature breakfast dish is the breakfast burrito. A typical one has eggs, potatoes, breakfast meat and cheese. The key to the New Mexican version, different from ones you may have had in Colorado, Arizona, California or anywhere else, is chile, either red or green. The hand-held ones, often with chopped chile, are perfect for breakfast on the fly. If you’re eating in, go for the smothered. This means that melted cheese and a sauce made from either green or red chile covers the top. If you can’t decide which one you want or just want to sample both, ask for” Christmas” and you’ll sound like a local.
While you’re here, try a green chile cheeseburger. They are so important here that the State created the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.
Bert’s Burger Bowl (235 North Guadeloupe Street), a drive-in that’s been serving up burgers since 1954, claims to have invented this wonderful addition to the burger scene. Other places also make that claims, so who knows. The green chile cheeseburger is so important to the local cuisine that the big burger chains here offer them, but stick to a local place. There are so many good ones to try.
Santa Fe Bite (formally Bobcat Bite) a funky burger joint inside of Garrett's Desert Inn at 311 Old Santa Fe Trail is world-famous for their green chile cheeseburgers.
It's official; according to Roadfood gurus Jane and Michael Stern’s new book, Lexicon of Real American Food, the Frito Pie was born in Santa Fe. This beloved concoction was first served at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s (now the Five and Dime) in the 1960s. The dish is made and served right in the Frito bag. The crispy chips are topped with chile, cheese, onions lettuce and tomato for a spicy, crunchy treat.
The authentic local enchiladas are stacked and traditionally the tortillas are made from blue corn. Tacos tend to be soft. Like beef? Request the shredded instead of ground; it’s richer and more flavorful.
Above: "Christmas style" enchiladas at The Shed in Santa Fe.
Most New Mexican restaurants serve sopapillas (translated as little pillows), fried puffy pastries with the meal. Save them for dessert and put honey (always supplied) on them.
Try a breakfast burritos or one of the other wonderful New Mexican breakfast options at Tecolote Café, a local favorite (UPDATE May 2015: Temporarily closed. Re-opening soon at a new location it has been renovating). They are also known for their French toast and always have a selection of homemade breads to choose from. All egg dishes come with a choice of tortilla or the bakery basket. Go for the basket. You’ll love the homemade muffins and biscuits. Tecolote has some of the best breakfast potatoes in town. Open for lunch also.
Café Pasqual’s is a destination dining spot for visitors to Santa Fe. For years, it’s been written about by visiting food and travel writers and deservedly so. Chef/owner, Katherine Kagel, who opened the restaurant in 1979, is committed to fresh, local and organic when possible. The eclectic world cuisine menu has a heavy dose of New Mexican food on it. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, each is a star in its own right. Breakfast is probably the meal they are most known for. Try the Huevos Motuleños, Huevos Barbacoa or Kagel’s signature corned beef hash. Portions are huge and half-orders are available for many menu items. Be prepared to wait. They only accept reservations for dinner. It seems that everyone wants to eat here and it’s small. By the end of the meal, you may know your neighbors. If you’re dining alone, the community table is a great way to meet people, both locals and visitors.
Family-owned Tia Sophia’s (210 West San Francisco Street 505-983-9880), is probably one of the best-known New Mexican breakfast places in town. The popular restaurant has been serving breakfast and lunch for almost 40 years. It’s a place where locals eat, including a lot of business people and politicians. It’s where Santa Fe’s version of the power-breakfast often takes place. Start your day with New Mexican fare or traditional American options. Again, be prepared to wait, but the well-oiled place moves diners through efficiently.
Another busy local favorite is The Pantry located on Cerrillos Road about ten minutes from downtown. It’s always bustling. Try the delicious smothered burritos or one of the other tempting items on the menu. They also serve lunch and dinner.
For a quick handheld burrito to go, try El Parasol a storefront, also on Cerrillos Road. If you’re really in a hurry, call ahead. They also have three dine-in locations. One on the south end of town, one north in Pojaque and one in Española.
The Shed, on historic East Palace Avenue, is a destination restaurant for visitors to Santa Fe. Many locals prefer their sister restaurant, La Choza located in the Railyard district southwest of downtown. Both are known for their delicious red and green chile. Try their signature green chile clam chowder.
Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen (UPDATE: Under new ownership. Has not been re-evaluated) is famous for their margaritas. They have a list offering about 100 choices. You may see Robert Redford chowing down on the spicy fare or perhaps other famous faces.
As a former hotel concierge and owner of a travel concierge and trip-planning business in Santa Fe, the writer may have at some time been a guest of some of the restaurants mentioned in this post. These experiences have not influenced this post in any way.
Note from Don Nadeau: Billie Frank was a concierge at two Four-Diamond hotels in Santa Fe for over four years. She is co-owner of The Santa Fe Traveler, a travel concierge and trip-planning service. She also has a blog, Santa Fe Travelers, and you can follow her on Twitter.
I thank Billie for the immense knowledge of the Southwest that she brings to readers. And also a big thanks to food writer and former executive chef Steve Collins, @SFTravelerSteve on Twitter, who provided most of the great photos here. These are fine people!
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