Epicurean Charlotte

Food & Wine Magazine


On Santa Fe’s Trail

by Michael J. Solender
images courtesy La Fonda, Santa Fe School of Cooking, Tourism Santa Fe

"Take time to look,” encourages the smooth grey stone paperweight at Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The quote, attributed to O’Keeffe on the $15 souvenir, is actually a snippet and only partially encapsulates the sentiment behind the iconic American artist’s original uttering, “I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see—and I don’t.”

O’Keeffe’s work, particularly her late-period New Mexico landscapes and still-life studies, show mastery in exposing nuanced layers of beauty and deeper meaning found behind her gaze.

“The City Different,” Santa Fe Tourism’s tagline, embraces O’Keeffe’s notion of “different” being in the eye of the beholder.

Santa Fe History
History buffs embrace the integrity of the Pueblo-style architecture, the well documented legacy of the city’s early 17th century Spanish colonization, her historic central Santa Fe Plaza, and the famously narrow and twisted streets.

A visit to the Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum rewards with a rich exploration of Santa Fe’s colorful past and insight into the proud sense of place locals lay claim to in this, the second-oldest city in the U.S., established in 1607.

The single story fort-like structure is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the U.S., and its exhibitions show how the progression of Spanish colonialists, Mexican explorers, and American adventurers all put their stamp on this territory. Of note is the Treasures of Devotion exhibit, an extensive collection of hand-carved and painted bultos, retablos, and crucifijos dating from the late 1700s, which illustrate the distinctive tradition of santo making in New Mexico.

The Plaza engages contemporary art lovers with special Native American pride on display at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, an inviting space with activist, folk and modernist expressions by premier Native American artists.

Creatives delight at finding themselves in the third largest art market in the United States. The fabled Canyon Road has no less than 31 galleries to explore, and there are dozens more downtown. Santa Fe boasts public art installations around every corner, a vibrant performing arts scene, and the majestic outdoor Santa Fe Opera that beckons to international audiences each summer.

O’Keeffe’s Influence
Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is aptly on most visitor’s bucket list. The compact space allows for ease of navigation and takes guests on O’Keeffe’s journey from rural Wisconsin farm life to teaching gigs across mid-American to the bright lights and solo exhibitions in New York City and her life-long affiliation with photographer/mentor/promoter/husband, Alfred Stieglitz.

The museum highlight’s O’Keeffe’s love affair with New Mexico and both depicts her life and pursuits at nearby homesteads (easy day trips) of Abiquiu and the storied Ghost Ranch.

Santa Fe’s affection for all things O’Keeffe extends to her culinary influence. An avid gardener and farm-to-forker before it was a thing, O’Keeffe pursued organic farming and a holistic approach to food.

Visitors gain firsthand O’Keeffe kitchen stories from her personal assistant, Margaret Wood, in a special three-hour demonstration class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. The multi-course meal includes Wood/O’Keeffe recipes such as Arugula salad with herb dressing, Corn soup, Baked chicken with lemon, Fried potatoes and Norwegian apple pie cake with rum sauce.

Culinary culturists looking further back in time are delighted at Santa Fe’s Kakawa House of Chocolate. This unique chocolatier specializes in historic chocolate elixirs including those from Pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican, Mayan, Aztec, European, Colonial American, and Colonial Mexican peoples. Kakawa—the Olmec word meaning cacao or chocolate—serves historic recipes alongside dynamite specialty chocolates (goat cheese sage truffles are a best seller) and is the consuming passion of owners and former fashion industry wonks, Tony and Bonnie Bennett.

Nature’s splendor is the most alluring siren call in this region, and visitors to Santa Fe are well-served to carve out time for an excursion to Bandelier National Monument. Just 41 miles north of Santa Fe, more than 33,000 protected acres of national parkland deliver glorious vistas of rugged canyon mesa and curious wildlife such as pointy-eared Abert squirrels,
mule deer, bats, American pika, elk, badgers, tarantulas, and even Grizzly bear.

Most spectacular, though, are the 10,000-year-old cliff dwellings created by ancient native peoples leaving evidence of a nomadic hunter/gatherer lifestyle and their occupation of Frijoles Canyon. The park’s well-maintained main trail affords an intimate look at the caves, structures, pictographs, stone carvings, and cisterns, and paint a picture of how ancient
people navigated this rugged country.

Dining—Santa Fe Style
At an elevation of 7,200 feet, Santa Fe is the highest state capital in the country. A day’s touring in this rarified air leaves one both hungry and thirsty.

No to worry, as Santa Fe is a culinary powerhouse with libations and dining options that satisfy on each count.

The margaritas are cold and the salsa is hot at La Choza, a local institution and third-generation family run restaurant, and the first stop on Wander New Mexico’s Railyard Food Tour.

La Choza owner Sarah Carswell explains the difference between “New” Mexican cooking and “Old” Mexican cooking, using the simple but delicious dish of pozole to illustrate. New Mexican-style pozole—a fermented dried corn rehydrated in a chili infused broth—is bright and acidic with lime juice, fresh cabbage, and avocado, and is served as a side dish. Traditional Mexican pozole, on the other hand, is served in the style of a hearty stew as a main dish. Tacos here are served soft or crisp, with fish, pork, or beef in blue corn or traditional tortillas—crowd favorites all around.

Julia: A Spirited Restaurant & Bar greets guests with a stunning dining room and features locally-sourced dishes created with flair by executive chef Jon Jerman. Chef Jerman’s nuanced yet decidedly unfussy approach shines in a series of small flavorful tapas plates, proving his knowledge of flavor pairings, and the delightful shared plates facilitate tableside conversation.

Jerman’s Green Chile Duck Empanadas—golden buttery pouches of savory dough encasing confited duck—are served with a roasted tomato salsa. Even the most basic Spanish-style olives get extra love from being fire roasted, bathed in fruity Spanish olive oil, and served alongside a crusty garlic rubbed baguette and pepita-Romanesco. The real star is chef’s Bacalao—salt cod fritters with a mojo verde dipping sauce that is Santa Fe on a plate.

The restaurant’s namesake, Julia Staab, wife of Abraham Staab, was once resident of the manse now converted to the historic La Posada De Santa Fe, a spa, resort, and luxe accommodation. This six-acre retreat is only blocks from Santa Fe Plaza and a most comfortable retreat while on holiday.

Old and New World unite under the thoughtful construction of acclaimed chef John Rivera Sedlar at ELŌISA, New Mexico’s sole James Beard nomination as 2016 Best New Restaurant. ELŌISA finds inspiration in Sedlar’s grandmother, longtime personal chef to Georgia O’Keeffe.

Small plates include Tortillas Florales made from heirloom white corn tortillas and served with avocado Indian butter and Zuni Jicama Tacos­, featuring fresh jicama wafers, escabeche, avocado, cilantro, and pickled ginger. Teasing the palate as openers, they’re followed by specialties like Pecos River Trout, which is a delicate blue cornmeal-crusted pan-fried trout served with oregano, warm corn salad, and piquillo pepper sauce; and the Chile Spiced Shrimp “Newberg,” meaty pan-fried shrimp finished with brandy and creamed leeks.

The restaurant is in partnership with the Drury Plaza Hotel Santa Fe, a historic renovation of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital. Opened in 2014 with more than 180 rooms, the hotel is one the largest in the heart of the city. Guests enjoy spacious, comfortable rooms and handsome public spaces including rooftop lounge and pool.

La Plazuela delights diners with an attentive staff, well-crafted cocktails, and a kitchen that executes at every turn. Situated in the most beautiful dining room in Santa Fe, La Plazuela makes for a perfectly romantic evening and the place to linger over the likes of an Osos Buco-style Braised Pork Shank nestled in a bed of cheesy chile grits, red onion confit, and sautéed spinach, or Northern New Mexican specialties such as Rellenos de La Fonda—Mexican cheese stuffed green chiles, beer-battered, and shallow fried topped with Christmas Chiles. Start with La Plazuela’s famous tableside guacamole for some fun culinary theatre to accompany your margaritas.

After dinner, admire the vast and eclectic art collection at La Fonda on the Plaza. Painting and sculptural-work by Pueblo artists, Native Americans, and some of the finest Southwest American artists make up a prized collection that set this historic property apart. La Fonda is the only hotel situated directly on Santa Fe’s Plaza.

Hatch Green Chiles are ubiquitous in New Mexico and enliven even in the most unexpected places. Case in point, Santa Fe’s New York Deli.

Brooklyn meets Santa Fe in this successful mashup—home to the Green Chile Bagel (don’t knock it ‘til you try it). A full parking lot at 9 a.m. is a very good sign, and once inside, visitors find the NYC vibe gives way to New Mexican nice, with chorizo-stuffed Breakfast Burritos, Southwest Benedict, and Blue Corn Pancakes flying out of the open kitchen to anxiously awaiting locals and tourists alike. Their salsa verde—made with roasted Hatch Chilis—is memorable with a smoky, building heat that compliments dishes without
overwhelming them.

If a traditional Southwest power breakfast is more your style, head over to the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi. This charming boutique hotel offers guests a quiet luxe respite from the day’s harried shopping, touring, and site seeing.

Enjoy specialties such as light and fluffy Blue Corn Pancakes, Huevos Rancheros, or Chilaquiles, along with freshly-squeezed green or orange juice and aromatic coffee while you plan the day’s conquests.

Santa Fe’s wonders belie the city’s compact footprint—a week’s holiday here will barely scratch the surface. Point your compass west, and be ready to experience The City Different.