Many things can make a dish memorable. It could be an especially fine rendition of an old favorite or a totally new combination of tastes and textures. Visual appeal might play a role, along with the overall restaurant experience, your relationship to the person with whom you shared the dish, or the emotions it triggers when you reflect on it. These are a few of our favorite discoveries in 2019. Contact the restaurants for current prices and availability.
Arroyo Vino: Spring vegetable tempura
A friend and I enjoyed many a happy hour at Arroyo Vino (218 Camino La Tierra, 505-983-2100, arroyovino.com) in 2019, catching up over well-
constructed cocktails, silky house-made chicken liver pâté, and special seasonal appetizers, like the spring vegetable tempura that appeared on the menu one evening. The beech mushrooms, sugar snap peas, and wild onions were dipped in a light rice-flour batter, briefly fried, and presented in a pool of miso yuzu-
enriched aioli along with cup of ponzu dipping sauce. Simultaneously sweet, salty, crisp, and creamy, it was a true sensual treat. Spring is long gone, and my friend has left town. But Arroyo Vino continues to host happy hour (5 to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday), so maybe, just maybe, that tempura will reappear on the menu one fine day. — Patricia West-Barker
Cuchara del Inca: Causa de pollo & lomo saltado
Many of the restaurants in Santiago, Chile, where one branch of my family lives, serve classic Peruvian rather than Chilean food. (In fact, I’ve been told that there are more Peruvian restaurants in Chile than in Peru, although I can’t verify that.) Perhaps that family connection is why I have such fond memories of eating at Cuchara del Inca (317 Aztec St., 505-666-1577) — the food, the rooms, and the ambience are reminiscent of some of our favorite cafés in the Providencia neighborhood of Santiago. Andean standards like causa de pollo (potatoes cooked, molded, and layered with shredded chicken, peas, and avocado, the whole bound together with just enough mayonnaise) and lomo saltado (strips of beef stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, and peppers and served with the unlikely combination of rice and French fries) are well prepared at Cuchara — comfort food with an Incan accent. — P.W.B.
La Cocina: guacamole and chicharrón burrito
This huge burrito (which I’ve not seen on another menu) satisfies a different kind of hunger. Stuffed with a blend of super-creamy guacamole and crunchy bits of fatty, salty pork rinds, it meets all the criteria of a genuine guilty pleasure. Find it at
415 Santa Clara Bridge Road, Española, 505-753-3016,
lacocinanewmexico.com. You never know whenever the urge to indulge will strike. — P.W.B.
Eloisa: Tempura Shrimp Festival
At the other end of the spectrum is this elegant dish on the bar menu at Eloisa (in the Drury Hotel,
228 E. Palace Ave., 505-982-0883, eloisasantafe.com). This is a beautifully imagined and composed dish that tastes as good as it looks — and it looks pretty darn good. Coated with a light, well-seasoned tempura batter and fried to a soft rather than a crisp finish, the six jumbo shrimp are presented, tails up, in a row of six clear glasses over a colorful puddle of alternating Thai chile, mango-habanero, and lemon aioli dipping sauces. — P.W.B.
El Chile Toreado: Tacos de pescado
Our family never really observed Lent when I was a kid, but for most of my adult life, I’ve given up something during the paschal season — bread, chips, sugar, booze — partly out of a desire to participate in an annual ritual but mostly just to prove that I can. During Lent, many devout Catholics in Santa Fe abstain from eating meat every day, or at least on Fridays, and while I’m not bound by liturgical laws, I do love seafood, so during the roughly six weeks leading up to Easter, I rejoice. Every Friday, the fish-taco faithful and I flock to El Chile Toreado
(807 Early St., 505-500-0033, elchiletoreado.com) — the colorful truck that earlier this year relocated from Cordova Road to a slightly more clandestine position across the street from Tiny’s — where for the duration of the Lenten season, exemplary tacos de pescado make a limited-time appearance on the Friday lunchtime menu. Corn tortillas are piled high with nuggets of spicy griddled fish, golden corn kernels, cabbage, pickled red onion, fresh cilantro, pico de gallo, and best of all, Chile Toreado’s signature light-green sauce: a mysterious, mind-blowing elixir that leaves your whole mouth tingling. Toreado is strictly a takeout establishment (at least for now), so rather than enduring the tacos’ enticing aromas on the drive home or back to the office, I just perch the colorful paper plate on my lap or on the trunk of my car and get to noshin’. Can I get an amen?
— Laurel Gladden
Plaza Café: Pumpkin posole
When the air turns cold and the aspens have begun their annual green-to-gold alchemy, I make a beeline for the historic Plaza Café (54 Lincoln Ave., 505-982-1664, plazacafesantafe.com) or its younger Southside sister, Plaza Café South (3466 Zafarano Drive, 505-424-0755, plazacafesouth.com). For a brief time every fall, both outlets serve generous bowls and petite cups of pumpkin posole — a rich, warm, perfectly pumpkin-colored potion that hits all the comfort-food buttons, and has just the right amount of spice to take the chill off and turn your cheeks rosy. Scattered inside a cool drizzle of crema, toasted pepitas double down on the pumpkin content and provide a nutty crunch. It’s a welcome contrast to the chewy hominy and the “broth,” which is velvety and thick but still slurp-able. Intermittent nubbins of chorizo add richness without dominating. This is an ideal meal to follow a long autumnal hike; a bowl will help you refuel and may well sate you for the rest of
the day. — L.G.
Santacafé: Ahi appetizer
This year brought a new unexpected delight — the ahi appetizer at Santacafé (231 Washington Ave., 505-984-1788, santacafe.com). The menu rightly classifies it as one of the “Must Haves,” and though its cryptic description of “Crispy Rice | Tacos” doesn’t help you understand what you’re about to eat, that’s exactly what it is: dreamy, lightly dressed butter-soft fish tucked in shatteringly crisp folded wonton shells and dolloped atop knobs of rice (akin to those used in nigiri) that have been lightly toasted on the sides. I’ve ordered this dish on every visit since Pasatiempo’s review in October — even just as a bonus for a table of friends and family who are perfectly happy with the entrees they’ve chosen. It’s irresistible. — L.G.
Geronimo: Green miso sea bass & tiramisu
Few restaurants have changed more in my esteem over the last decade than Geronimo (724 Canyon Road, 505-982-1500, geronimorestaurant.com), which I’ll confess I found staid for years but which now impresses anew every time I visit. During a recent business dinner, I fell under the spell of their sublimely elegant green miso sea bass. This may be a career highlight for ramen, best known for sustaining college kids in five-for-a-buck packs but which here seems all grown up, anchoring a sophisticated dish that feels at once indulgent and healthful. Bok choy, scallions, and mushrooms in a sea of remarkably subtle lobster-miso broth surround an island of perfectly tender ropy noodles, bolstering a monolith of shockingly tender, mildly sweet, snow-white sea bass — not a fish I tend to favor but one I find intoxicating in this preparation. This is a good-to-the-last-drop situation — you’ll be happy that your place setting includes a spoon.
In the dessert world, tiramisu has become something of a cliché. It has secured its position on sweet-stuff menus everywhere, and in the post-Sleepless in Seattle decades, most diners know what’s in this pervasive, rich dolce. Geronimo’s pastry chef, Ericka Rodriguez, shatters your expectations, transforming the layered Italian dessert into (begging her pardon for the comparison) the fanciest Ho Ho that’s ever passed your lips. A soft rod of coffee-soaked ladyfinger-like cake runs through the center of marsala cream, and the whole cylinder is given a pretty dusting of bittersweet cocoa and topped with a finely detailed, stunningly delicate chocolate leaf. This is the kind of brief, blissful end note that makes your eyes roll back in your head. Shared, it disappears in just a few bites, but you’ll relish every one. — L.G.