One delicious day in Santa Fe, N.M., serves up a feast of global inspirations.
You’d need weeks to plumb the deeprooted cuisine of New Mexico’s capital, where American Indian, mainstream American, and Mexican flavors have been simmering together for centuries. But you can get a pretty delicious introduction in a single day, provided you shelve your dietary scruples and start early.
First stop: Whoo’s Donuts (whoosdonuts.com) opens at 7 a.m. and carries an array of inventive flavors, from dreamsicle to s’more. Not surprisingly, the blue corn with blueberry-lavender glaze outsells them all. “We decided to do something signature Southwest,” says owner Jeff Keenan, “and now the doughnut has cult status.” Rightly so. Blue cornmeal—the high-protein cousin of yellow—gives the pastry a fabulous crunch and a purple hue.
For a full breakfast, head to colorful Cafe Pasqual’s (pasquals.com). An order of huevos rancheros elicits a question from the server: red chile sauce on top, or green? Made from a range of peppers, including the New Mexico variety, red chile is lean and complex. Some find green hotter. To determine which you prefer, say “Christmas” and you’ll get some of each.
On Saturdays, the huge Farmers’ Market (santafefarmersmarket.com), largely indoors when the weather dictates, is a must. “Bring an extra duffel bag,” says Lois Frank, author of Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, who recommends seeking out unique local products such as tiny, nutty tepary beans or smoky dried corn (aka chicos). Not to be missed: a wedge of wonderfully elemental American Indian plum pie, which tastes of little else than the earthy wheat and tart fruit from which it is made.
Some folks assume that American Indians were locavores, but Native people were likely importing chocolate to the Southwest 1,000 years ago. Kakawa Chocolate House (kakawachocolates.com), a cozy adobe café, specializes in what it calls elixirs, hot drinks made from ancient Mesoamerican recipes that involve grinding chocolate with nuts, petals, and spices. These intense cocoas bear no resemblance to a sugary mug of Swiss Miss.
Nothing will jolt you back to the present faster than the juicy 10-ounce green chile cheeseburger at Santa Fe Bite (santafebite.com), the fire of its fruity chiles offset by molten cheese and a homemade bun. You’ll need a break from active eating after this whopper. Perhaps an afternoon class that teaches how to wrap tamales in corn husks at the Santa Fe School of Cooking (santafeschoolofcooking.com)?
Further expand your tamale knowledge over dinner at the lively New Mexican–Salvadoran Tune-Up Café (tuneupsantafe.com), where the fat, sumptuous chicken tamales come wrapped in banana leaves, Central American style. Find a quieter, more glamorous alternative at La Plazuela (lafondasantafe.com/dining-and-entertainment) in the grand dining room of the 1922 hotel La Fonda on the Plaza, its traditional local dishes imbued with all the dignity of French haute cuisine. Plump, perfect chiles rellenos oozing velvety cheese come coated in a feathery batter and served with a basket of airy sopapillas (deep-fried bread topped with honey). As you relish this classic Santa Fe feast, plot your eating agenda for tomorrow. You’re just getting started.
Photography by Douglas Merriam (burger and doughnut); courtesy of Santa Fe Cooking School (chef and students)
This article was first published in November 2014. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.