Let’s pretend you’re a tourist or you’ve just moved to Santa Fe. You’re strolling down Palace Avenue, and as you notice a colorful, almost psychedelic-looking wooden sign overhead announcing The Shed, you peer around the corner into a courtyard. It’s crammed with people waiting, some more patiently than others, for a table at one of Santa Fe’s stalwart dining establishments, founded by the Carswell family in the 1950s.
Once you’re inside the lavender doors of the wonky-looking adobe hacienda (the bones of the building date to the 1690s), you may be in for a bit of a wait. The restaurant takes reservations at dinner — and making one is highly recommended — but not at lunch. Soften the blow of a 30-plus-minute holding pattern with a potent margarita like the Shed Silver, made with Hornitos and Triple Sec, or the Silver Spur, with Espolón Blanco and Cointreau. Around this time of year, a fire is likely to be crackling in the small kiva fireplace, and the waiting room can fill up quickly, but a little tequila usually contributes to a jovial ambience. In warmer months you can linger in the brick- and flagstone-paved patio with its lush vines and cluster of surrounding shops.
A friendly staff member will eventually guide you through the restaurant’s ant-colony-like complex of colorful rooms (you might have to duck in one or two places). Food and drinks are typically delivered surprisingly rapidly — you may not have time to finish snacking on the buttery guacamole and concentrated ruby-red tomato salsa — and with a businesslike brevity and efficiency. The servers don’t have much time to chat, though, since the restaurant is nearly always at full capacity.
Meals can begin with a bowl of something warm and comforting. The green chile stew, loaded with potato and pork, packs a punch. Mellower is the mushroom soup, a rich, filling cream-based elixir with a light-brown tint from pureed button mushrooms. Also on the tamer side are colorful, serviceable veggie and chicken quesadillas and a garden salad that includes a variety of fresh, healthy-tasting greens, a haystack of grated carrot, a scattering of sunflower seeds, a few green beans, cucumber rounds, and tomatoes.
The Shed accommodates those who prefer more “all-American” menus, offering a few steaks and burgers. The Shedburger was an unexpected pleasure. It’s topped with pico de gallo and your choice of cheese and served on a lightly toasted bun with a brioche-like softness. Even cooked to a perfect medium, as we ordered it, it was moist and juicy, without turning into a gloppy, sloppy mess.
But really, chile is the thing. The green is fine and spicy, if a bit soupy, but The Shed’s red is consistently voted best in town. (To help with the occasional at-home craving, you can even buy it by the jar.) Any New Mexican classic — enchiladas, tacos, burritos, huevos rancheros — can be doused in the stuff, and you’ll be satisfied by nearly any dish you choose. Most dishes can be ordered à la carte or as a platter, which includes tender, savory pinto beans (vegetarian) and posole studded with niblets of falling-apart pork.
My go-to is huevos rancheros. Here, two blue-corn tortillas are topped with tangy cheddar cheese and two eggs cooked “to order.” But the over-medium eggs I requested consistently arrived at the table completely runny, so I’m going to stop ordering them that way. I feel like the kitchen’s scolding me for asking for anything besides over-easy.
The carne adovada impressed me — the kind of low-and-slow stewing required to achieve that level of tenderness is hard to maintain, and the meat had intriguing hints of herbs and aromatics. (Oregano and maybe clove?) The enchiladas are the rolled sort — blue-corn tortillas filled with cheddar and onion and blanketed with chile. It’s far from the most artful plate you’ll be presented with in Santa Fe, but you’ll quickly be riding a wave of chile-induced euphoria, feeling full and satisfied.
Bring yourself back down to earth with something sweet. My dining companions opted for the delicate-but-cleansing citrus and intense creaminess of the lemon soufflé, but for me, the mocha cake is a clear winner. Served cold, it’s a block of something like powerful chocolate mousse with a slight (but not unpleasant) sugary graininess and an undercurrent of coffee.
A word to the uninitiated: these desserts will have to stand in for the more traditional New Mexican dining finale, the sopaipilla. At The Shed, a basket of garlic bread accompanies every meal instead. If you can’t fathom a lunch or dinner in Santa Fe without a sopaipilla drizzled with honey, save yourself the heartache and eat elsewhere. Or, better yet, step outside your comfort zone and dunk a hunk of buttery, salty bread in the remnants of red chile on your plate. Your world just might change for the better. ◀