Santa Fe’s food and art scenes offer a sampling of a wide variety of cultures such as Native American, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, African and French to tourists and locals alike. There are shops, markets and restaurants where people from everywhere can proudly tell their stories — and the story the family who owns Cafecito has to tell is spoken best through tangy chimichurri and savory empanadas.
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go,” Anthony Bourdain once said.
The food owners Andres Paglayan and Solange Serquis serve at Cafecito, which opened in 2019 at 922 Shoofly St., is the very food they grew up eating in Argentina. The couple say they opened the restaurant to create a friendly environment, build community and reinforce their children’s knowledge that there is a place for their family culture wherever they go.
This became an important aspect of their restaurant to their oldest son, Manouk Paglayan, 18, who in grade school “was always the kid with the weird lunchbox.”
“Everyone else had Lunchables while I was bringing brown rice,” he said. “Now it’s not a problem, but when you’re a little kid and what’s normal to you at home is weird at school, you start to hide. I think many kids go through that, and it’s sad, especially for such a culturally diverse town.”
Although many children might have had a similar experience, Cafecito helps reinforce that different is beautiful and merges many flavors into one restaurant.
Wanting to stay authentic to themselves, the family created a restaurant that incorporated their entire heritage.
Cafecito does so through the amalgamation of American, Armenian, Italian and Argentine flavors that draw on the owners’ family backgrounds.
Among other great Italian and Armenian choices, authentic-to-Argentina dishes Cafecito offers include: savory empanadas, an essential component to South American cuisine, served with chimichurri, an fresh parsley sauce commonly found in Argentina and Uruguay; fried Argentine fritters called buñuelos; and an Argentine steak sandwich called the Lomito Completo, which has fried egg, ham, provolone and more on ciabatta bread.
Many desserts and breads at Cafecito utilize the most popular treat in Argentina and bordering countries: dulce de leche, made by slowly heating milk and sugar together to create a delicate yet thick consistency.
Above all, maté, a traditional herbal drink, is a key part of the menu that people say is integral to Argentine culture.
“You watch TV and see the live manifestation of different cultures. Cafecito brings you authentic experiences just like those happening in the present moments in Argentina. … Maté is a crucial aspect of that. For example, in Argentina, you see soccer players drinking maté before and after games,” explained one restaurant employee and family member, who said maté is meant to be shared in groups of people.
People coming into Cafecito are hoping to get a little taste of Argentina, and many inquire about the aspects of maté: an infusion made from the yerba maté plant. While it can be prepared to the drinker’s liking, it is normally a bitter caffeinated beverage. Maté-related décor around the restaurant and familiarity with it from popular culture often compels customers to try the drink.
Cafecito is not just bringing Argentina to New Mexico with its cuisine. The owners also host tango lessons organized by Jaimes Friedgen and his wife, Christa, owners of 8th Style Tango and Cafecito regulars. According to Andres Paglayan, tangueros are accompanied at their lessons by milonga, a genre of music that originated in Buenos Aires and is seen as a predecessor to modern tango.
“There is no way to estimate the impact of these events on Santa Fean culture, but we know we like to facilitate any event that unites people and encourages meaningful discussion among them,” Andres Paglayan said.
While there is no official measure for how well Cafecito integrates Argentine culture into the landscape of Santa Fe, customers continue to come to the architecturally beautiful restaurant and refresh their memories of past trips to Argentina, while others are inspired to visit the country one day.
Cafecito is only one of many locally owned restaurants that aim to share parts of their story with the city of Santa Fe. Cafecito makes a visible impact the Paglayan family sees manifested in return customers and use of the traditional Argentine greeting: a hug and a kiss.
Manouk Paglayan adds: “I hope more people begin opening restaurants to share their family’s food.”