Perhaps nothing defines a specific geographic and cultural region as much as the food (la comida) its people eat. Northern New Mexico is blessed to have developed a distinct diet based on the fusion of its Native peoples, its Spanish/Mexican/ Hispanic culture and its last-to-the-table Anglo residents.
Here's a brief guide to some of the region's most renowned and cherished places to eat, which reflect our unique foods and ways to prepare them.
One of the true treasures of north-central New Mexico is El Paragua (505-753-3211, www.elparagua.com) of Española. Founded in 1958 and still operated by the Atencio family, it features authentic local cuisine, from the luscious Enchiladas Atencio swimming in sour cream and green chile to excellent steaks and even some seafood. It is the place in the area to go to celebrate a special event, and the bar serves up excellent margaritas (ask for the Silver Coin),
beers and wine.
Its adjoining "taco shack," El Parasol, serves up what might be the best tacos in the state, the stewed chicken tacos in a crispy handmade shell, plus other notable dishes, including a surprising range of vegetarian offerings.
Another popular dining option in Española, opened in 1970, is La Cocina (505-753-3016 or Facebook). With its river rock walls, wood corbels and vigas and outdoor patio, it's a pleasant place to eat, and the New Mexican and American fare is reasonably priced. For breakfast, served all day, try the excellent blue corn pancakes.
For some of the best lamb you'll ever chomp into, visit Angelina's (505-753-8543, www. angelinasnm.com), a family-owned endeavor also noted for its fine chile dishes. Also noteworthy is Blue Heron Tap Room (505- 747-4076, www.blueheronbrews.com), the town's leading such establishment, with pizza, salads pasta and lighter options. The taproom faces the plaza.
Santa Fe is a food lover's paradise, with daring award-winning chefs serving up a wide array of ethic foods and dishes that take their cues from a variety of creative global sources. Locally grown and organic are also strong trends here. Thus it's extremely difficult to suggest just a few places to eat, and one might check out the local newspaper and magazines to find additional options.
That said, I might direct visitors to four places. La Casa Sena (505-988-9232, www.lacasasena.com is a real treat if you can splurge. Its adobe walls covered with fine regional art and in summer its shady patio are sure to charm, and the food is sure to satisfy. Elk tenderloin and other game are specialties, but there is also fresh fish, New Mexican dishes and excellent salads on the menu, plus a great selection of fine wines and cocktails.
At the other end of the price scale is Dr. Fieldgoods (505-471-0043, www.drJieldgoods.com), where the young owner and staff bang out innovative entrées, sandwiches, soups and desserts focused on organics and fresh-picked produce. Try the quinoa salad, carne adovada egg roll or pork confit with fresh kale, house pickled red onions and local meat. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily.
Perhaps the best New Mexican food in town is found at The Shed (505-982-9030, www.sfshed). Opened in 1953, it serves a delicious red chile on many of its favorite plates, and its mocha cake is to die for. Its bar is a great place to snake in for a solo meal. Open for lunch and dinner, it is very popular, so expect a wait on all but the snowiest of winter days.
For some of the most inventive, healthy and delicious dishes you've ever seen, drop by Café Pascual's (505-983-9340, www.pascuals.com). Many a romance has been sparked at its community table, where singles are seated. Almost all the food is organic, and much is locally sourced. Its hearty breakfasts, such as corn beef hash with poached eggs, will get you rolling. Its motto, "Panza lena, corazon contento" ("Full belly, happy heart"), says it all.
Like Santa Fe, Taos has an abundance of excellent dining possibilities, so much so that it's hard to single out a few. But among the best are the following:
El Meze (575-751-3337, www.elmeze.com) features fresh, locally inspired and gathered foods, from trout to wild mushrooms. Dig into the buffalo short ribs adovada, the slow-braised beef short ribs or the house-made pasta with local greens, garlic and shaved Manchego cheese from the talented hands of chef Frederick Mueller.
The Love Apple (575-751-0050, www.theloveapple.net) posts a daily list of local organic farms where it obtains its fresh ingredients -- including farm-fresh eggs and chicken, buffalo, beef and game -- used to create home-style but fine meals. Chow down on buttermilk yellow cornbread, lamb meatballs, grilled trout, antelope loin or homemade baked tamales. Open only for dinner; closed Mondays; cash and checks only.
A long-standing local fave is Doc Martin's (575-758-1977, www.taosinn.com) in the historic Taos Inn. It boasts a menu running from rattlesnake to rabbit but also more mainstream and extremely well-prepared entrées. The chile relleno with goat cheese and pumpkin seeds is exceptional, as are the clams and chorizo and the braised local lamb shank. Open for lunch and dinner.
Taos Ski Valley has a handful of good to excellent options. Dinner reservations are hard to come by at the Hotel St. Bernard (575-208-2521) under its famed owner-chef Jean Mayer, but if you can snag one, you are in for a rare dining experience. The Bavarian (575-776-8020, www.thebavarian.com) serves up delicious German-inspired dishes, while right in the heart of the community is locals' favorite and always dependable Tim's Stray Dog Cantina (575-776-2894, www.straydogtsv.com).
Boxcar Café (575) 756-2706
Excellent New Mexican fare with award-wining chile, plus standard American plates and surprisingly good coffee; no alcohol. Owned and operated by Chama native Herb Sanchez.
High Country Restaurant & Saloon (575) 756-2384
Notable steaks and New Mexican dishes. Western-style ambience, with live music in the bar on weekends.
Fina's Diner (575) 756-9195
Friendly staff and fast service of New Mexican
and American food.
Elk Horn Café (575) 756-2229
Home to a great elk burger and carne adovada, plus more standard American fare, this classic roadside joint is the type of place where the waitresses call you Hon.
The religious pilgrimage village of Chimayo is the setting for Rancho de Chimayo. This very popular stop along the High Road to Taos is set in a charming old adobe home, with crackling fires in many rooms in winter and outdoor patios for summer dining. It focuses on New Mexico comidas such as chile rellenos, tamales and enchiladas but also has dishes for the spicy-challenged. In 2015 it marked its 50th anniversary.
The famed hot springs retreat town of Ojo Caliente has several quality options, from the upscale and inventive fare at the hotel restaurant of the hot springs itself, The Artesian, under chef Paul Novak (505-583-2233, www.ojospa.com), to the mom-and-pop roadside Mesa Vista diner (505-583-2245) with its standard but well-done New Mexican fare.
The town of Peñasco is home to the remarkable Sugar Nymphs Bistro (575-587-0311, www.sugarnymphs.com), which makes all its own desserts, breads and pizza dough. It is open daily in summer for lunch and dinner and Sunday for brunch, with reduced winter hours.
Just east of Abiquiú on US 84 is a small hotel, the Abiquiú Inn, with a surprisingly good restaurant, Café Abiquiú (505-685-4378, www.abiquiuinn. com), which serves both standard popular American dishes and regional specialties. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.