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Destinations: Cuisine calienteDestinations: Cuisine caliente

A taste of New Mexico in Santa Fe and its environs

Editor's note: The printed version of this story incorrectly described the New Mexico flag and the name of a city in New Mexico. AOPA regrets the error.
TripAdvisor recently released its Travelers Choice awards for Dining and—no surprise—Santa Fe, New Mexico, has three restaurants on that list.
Pilot Briefing February 2021
Outside of Santa Fe is the town of Madrid (left), made famous in the movie Wild Hogs.
Photography by Chris Rose

Santa Fe is usually thought of as a visual treat, what with its stunning scenery, historic architecture, and beautiful weather, but a trip here will strain your waistband—and your wallet. It’s a great spot for foodies, although it can be an expensive one.

One thing is for sure, the food in Santa Fe is not for the timid. There’s its New Mexican heritage, Texas influence, and appreciation for native food, indigenous ingredients, and love of wild game, especially elk. And chiles will be used!

It will come as no surprise that the chile is New Mexico’s state vegetable. In fact, in most restaurants, the first question you’ll be asked is “red or green?” Your server is asking about the type of chile you’d like on the side (and this isn’t a chuckwagon chili, it’s more of a salsa). If you can’t make up your mind between red or green, ask for Christmas! Get it?

The City Different

The city decided on its unified building style as far back as 1912. Founded in 1610, it’s the third-oldest city in the country (St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia, are older) and its founders realized that tourism was going to be key to keeping the city vibrant. A second ordinance was filed in 1957 again dictating the Pueblo style of architecture. The result is a melding of structure and nature, the modern buildings of Santa Fe looking like they have been there 400 years and the 400-year-old buildings kept up as if they were new. The ordinance included structure height, so most of Santa Fe comprises low-slung buildings, hugging the landscape. The adobe structures build upon themselves; rooms in restaurants and shops lead down narrow corridors to new spaces and visitors are apt to get lost in the maze of hallways. Ask for detailed instructions when looking for a bathroom!

A taste of New Mexico

So, what about those top TripAdvisor restaurants? Number 6 on the Fine Dining list is Geronimo, a French restaurant on Canyon Road (Canyon Road is Santa Fe’s art district; winding streets invite you into eclectic art galleries, stores, and restaurants). Geronimo is in a 1756 adobe house, but its new outdoor patio is COVID-19 friendly. Its French chef definitely checks his New Mexico flavors and elk is an often-requested specialty.

Sazon in downtown Santa Fe is number 12 in fine dining and it takes traditional Mexican food to incredible new heights. The décor is fabulous—a ceiling-to-floor painting of Frida Kahlo, sombreros, and twinkly star lamps dangling from the ceiling—and the chef is originally from Mexico City. The Ranch House is number 23 on TripAdvisor’s Everyday Dining list. It’s a barbecue restaurant and has an outdoor patio.

La Fonda on the Plaza is one of Santa Fe’s oldest hotels and features period-style rooms with original timber beams and authentic tile. Its rooftop bar and restaurant is a wonderful place to see the city and watch a spectacular sunset.

With its overcrowded décor and myriad decorative homages to Mexican and Native American culture, the Cowgirl BBQ and Western Grill is a true barbecue joint. Its wood tables, flamboyant bar area, and festive outdoor seating promise diners an authentic Santa Fe experience. Cowgirl calls its barbecue “righteous” and with good reason: There’s 12-hour mesquite-smoked brisket, pork, and chicken served hot off the smoker. The restaurant’s five-pepper nachos with salsa diablo was ranked thirteenth in the nation by The Wall Street Journal and Cowgirl’s food has been featured on Rachael Ray's $40 a Day and Heat Seekers. You can also get a burger made with elk, buffalo, or venison.

The Relleno Brothers are a local New Mexico company that make wines with the chiles of its native state, bottling as Noisy Water Winery. Try tastings at the shop on San Francisco Street, especially the Besito Caliente, white wine made with green chiles.

Email julie.walker@aopa.org

Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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