Now is the season of picnics, of cold watermelon and hot dogs, thick blankets spread on grassy slopes, beer sweating in a cooler, carne asada smoking on the grill, and sparklers come twilight. For opera-goers, this holiday weekend kicks off the first tailgate supper of the year — whether attendees opt for catered setups on tables clothed in linen and accented with crystal or simply pop down the tailgate and take out the Tupperware, visitors and locals alike relish Santa Fe Opera’s charming preshow tradition of outdoor dining. In an effort to highlight some good eats for alfresco feasting, I traversed the city, enjoying local delicacies on the banks of the Acequía Madre, at tables in Fort Marcy Park, and on benches on the Plaza, finding some viable options along the way.
If you’ve got tickets for Don Giovanni or La fanciulla del West, Cheesemongers of Santa Fe offers a few treats for turophiles. Proprietor and cheese whiz John Gutierrez has devised some opera-themed plates that present a selection of cheeses, meats, nuts, olives, mustards, jams, and crackers. The Italian Interlude platter provides a slice of la dolce vita with Italian cheeses, salumi, and prosciutto sourced from producers across The Boot, while the American Aria features handcrafted domestic cheeses and artisan charcuterie. Since the season hadn’t started yet, I pre-ordered the small picnic plate offered year-round ($30, serves two to four people) and went domestic, choosing the Massachusetts-made Maggie’s Round from Cricket Creek Farm, Red Rock Blue cheddar from the cheese haven of Wisconsin, salame Calabrese from Fra’Mani in California, and Utah capocollo. Cheesemongers had it ready for pick-up in a tidy box along with crackers, Marcona almonds, and Albuquerque’s own Lusty Monk “Original Sin” mustard. It was an indulgent spread fit for libertines and frontier women alike.
Seeking more proletarian cuisine, I braved the Cheeks parking lot to pick up a whole chicken dinner ($22) from the Pollo Asado shack. Owner Ludovico Arizmendi presents a feast in a Styrofoam container — impossibly tender, elaborately spiced char-grilled pollo, fluffy rice, rich refried beans, a hefty stack of corn tortillas, blistered chiles toreados, and an adorably small quesadilla resting atop the beauteous bird. This is food meant to be enjoyed in ballparks and backyards, and it’s my first stop in town when I think picnic.
Situated on the other side of Rufina Circle from Meow Wolf, Alicia’s Tortilleria is the site of my new tamale obsession. The small storefront offers a dozen moist, distinctively flavorful red- or green-chile pork-and-masa missiles for $15. Their corn-husk wrappers provide great portability, and Alicia’s also has a lengthy menu of affordable food for events, including enchiladas, chicken mole, and barbacoa, all lovingly prepared and giving your abuelita a run for her money in terms of home-style flavors.
After deciding to create a smorgasbord of specialty items, I went to Kaune’s Neighborhood Market and filled a cart with locally made delicacies, initiating an evening picnic by spreading Dream Catcher Ranchito’s impossibly fresh and creamy goat cheese ($9.69) on a toasted slice of Sage Bakehouse’s crusty farm bread ($3.69), topping it with a dollop of Heidi’s mildly spicy raspberry red-chile jam ($7.59). I made a savory counterpart on another toast with the cheese, garlicky Los Chileros pesto ($4.99), lightly sautéed squash, and roasted red chile, washing it down with a dry, crisp Honoro Vera Rosé ($11.98). Dessert was a revelation: a not-too-sweet buttery-crusted mini blueberry pie from AuthentiCookie ($5.39) — a label devoted to low-carb, low-sugar, but still utterly tasty goods, begun in Brooklyn and relocated to Santa Fe. AuthentiCookie also offers a rich green-chile chicken pot pie, also available at Kaune’s.
Mindful of that last-minute potluck panic, wherein you’re racing around town trying to find a memorable prepared item to wow your fellow diners with, I headed to Fire & Hops to pick up a sizeable side portion ($6) of their much-ballyhooed Brussels sprouts, which are fried to a crisp, tossed with fish sauce and salt, and topped with lightly pickled shallots. These insanely good sprouts are a surefire crowd-pleaser — as is a similar item from Talin Market’s Monday-only dumpling pop-up menu, a container of pickled hot-and-sour cucumbers flecked with bright red chile ($1.95), which made a boon companion to Talin’s plump, savory-syrupy mini pork belly and Granny Smith apple sandwich ($3.59).
There’s no picnic without pickles, so at Barrio Brinery, I sampled a plethora of fermented treasures, settling on hot-and-spicy cucumbers brined with garlic and local red chiles ($8.50) and kicky escabeche ($5.50), a medley of pickled carrots, jalapeños, and onions, which I happily devoured on another bit of crostini spread with goat cheese. This versatile blend could be a spicy side all on its own, but also lends itself to other piquant permutations — perhaps as a topping for grilled bratwurst.
After all this elemental dining, I’ve come to appreciate a picnic as the sum of its parts. Whatever delicious goodies you choose to bring along will inevitably take a backseat to the action of the setting — the shadowy Sangres, the chiaroscuro clouds of monsoon season — good company, and sparkling conversation. The true pleasure lies in the sheer novelty of taking a meal back to nature — where any moveable feast comes from in the first place. ◀