You can visit Santa Fe for the jewelry. You can go for the high desert air. You can walk the landscape that inspired Georgia O’Keeffe or hear opera under a canopy of stars.
But me? I went for red chile.
And there it was, spread over a fat enchilada and spilling across the white china platter — smoky red, tart and spicy, with a lingering burn that said: What took you so long to come back?
My wife and I first visited Santa Fe in 1994 and decided it was the perfect destination for people who like to hike and eat. Beautiful trails and unforgettable ruins lie within an hour’s drive in any direction; spend the day working up a sweat in the rugged terrain, and by sunset you’re sitting down to a table spread with chicken mole, chile rellenos and other specialties that have made Santa Fe the capital of “New Mexican’’ cuisine.
Since our inaugural trip, Santa Fe’s restaurant mix has only grown richer. Coyote Café made Mark Miller the celebrity chef of the Southwest and the Italian-inspired Trattoria Nostrani was named one of the nation’s 50 best restaurants by Gourmet magazine. Meanwhile, humble cafes like Tia Sofia serve burritos so good and so cheap that customers spill out the door and down the sidewalk.
On a recent visit we explored the territory in between: restaurants that take Southwestern food to new heights, but without high-altitude prices. These are creative but casual places where tomatillos meet Brie and green chiles invigorate a plate of gnocchi. We weren’t disappointed.
But first you have to work up an appetite.
For a nice easy stroll, spend a morning in old Santa Fe, a precinct of art galleries, cafes and high-end shopping that radiates from the 17th-century town plaza. History lies layers deep in Santa Fe — Pueblo Indian settlers, Spanish colonial governors, cowboys just off the Santa Fe Trail, and bohemians like O’Keeffe and D.H. Lawrence have all found it a compelling destination. Much of that history is preserved in fine, small museums around the plaza and by a municipal building code that honors the “Santa Fe style’’ of construction, giving the city an architectural unity so strong that even Wells Fargo and Starbucks occupy adobe structures with protruding viga beams.
If you tire of high culture and shops selling $1,400 cowboy boots, try “The Flea,’’ a cavernous indoor flea market about a mile away in the town’s rediscovered Railyard district. You’ll find a bewildering assortment of secondhand clothing, pawnshop silver and other lost treasures peddled by an equally bewildering assortment of eccentrics and graying hippies.
Hitting the hills
To really stretch your legs, however, you need to get out of town, and you can do that in any direction: south into a lunar landscape of desert and arroyos, west into the etched silhouettes of mesas and canyons, northeast into the cool alpine woods of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
We chose Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, a national park about 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe. The entrance road to this hidden park is long and somewhat forbidding — we actually thought we were lost more than once. But once we found the parking area, we understood the unusual name. Following a simple gravel path, we found ourselves snaking between eerie rock towers, carved into tent-like shapes by centuries of wind and rain and standing like sentries above the trail. Before long the trail led into a winding slot canyon, where the rough sandstone walls gradually closed in tighter and tighter until they brushed against our shoulders as we made our way along. Then, suddenly the trail opened up, climbing out of the canyon and up a rugged hillside to a brilliant ridge top, where we stood in the dry desert wind, taking in breathtaking 360-degree views of mesas, rivers and Santa Fe in the distance.
Inspired by the vista — and ready for sustenance — we headed back to town to explore our dining options.
In Santa Fe, chili peppers — or chiles — are an object of veneration and endless debate. Does the town of Hatch, the self-proclaimed “chile capital of the world” farther south in New Mexico, still produce the best chiles? Who makes the best red chile — a sauce, not a dish — that brilliant new chef at Geronimo or the guy who still honors his grandmother’s recipe? And of course, which is better: green chile, which is typically tart and chunky; or red, which tends to be smoky and bitter? If you can’t decide, order “Christmas,’’ and your enchiladas will arrive with both.
Casual, charming faves
Our first stop was Café Pasqual’s, a funky corner cafe that has become a Santa Fe institution since chef Katharine Kagel founded it in 1978. We went there 19 years ago on the recommendation of a friend, and dinner was so delicious that we were back for breakfast at 9 the next morning. When we walked in on a recent Thursday night, it looked as though nothing had changed: adobe walls painted in a sunny yellow, the ceiling festooned with cutout paper streamers. Any other restaurant might seem careworn without a face-lift after all those years, but Pasqual’s carries it off with a charm and self-confidence that explain why so many visitors regard it as their home away from home. That sense was reinforced by our waiter, who confided in a French accent that he left his native Nice years ago and loves Pasqual’s so much he would never go back to France.
The menu features plenty of Southwest comfort food — mole enchiladas and house tamales wrapped in corn husks — but Kagel also spreads her wings with daily specials such as Vietnamese flash-sauteed scallops and chipotle-portobello stew served in acorn squash.
Night 2 found us at another Santa Fe institution, the Shed, an easygoing restaurant tucked away behind an adobe courtyard near the central plaza. If you read the menu online, you might wonder why people flock there. But step inside and you’ll understand why: The tawny adobe walls and flickering kiva fireplace give the low-slung interior a comforting glow, and the enchiladas and burritos set the standard for every other place in town.
By Night 3 we’d had our fill of masa and jalapeños, so we made our way to Il Piatto, a trattoria not far from the plaza. Was it better than some of the great storefront restaurants in south Minneapolis? Probably not. But it’s a lively spot jammed most nights with Santa Fe’s swank young crowd; the wine list is strong and small plates like mussels in red sauce and pumpkin ravioli reminded us that there’s more to Santa Fe than tacos and burritos.
Strolling back to our hotel under a cold and cloudless sky, we passed the famed Coyote Café and couldn’t help taking a peek at the menu: chile-rubbed duck breast, pepper elk tenderloin, red chile onion rings. Our eyes got big even as our stomachs groaned, and we lamented the missed opportunity.
But there’s always next time.