Far from the tourist meccas of downtown Santa Fe, less conspicuous restaurants all over the city have been serving up dependably good Mexican, New Mexican, and Central American food for decades. These humble family-owned cafés hide in plain sight — off St. Francis Drive or Cerrillos Road, on small side streets, next to gas stations, or cloistered in strip malls. Inside, the server might have gone to high school with your cousin, the chef might ask after your family, and you can be sure that the chile will taste just the same as it did 10 years ago. Pasa’s food writers recently went to check in on a few of these old standbys.
Not much has changed at the Red Enchilada Restaurante (1310 Osage St., 505-820-6552) since brothers and co-owners Raul Lopez and Hector Melgar opened it 15 years ago in a small strip mall on Osage Avenue off Cerrillos. The address and phone number are the same — and so are the Salvadoran and New Mexican specialties that anchor the menu.
The pupusas ($3.25) — flat disks of masa stuffed with cheese and veggies or chicharrones — are a perfect canvas for the curtido (shredded and brined cabbage, onion, carrot, and jalapeño) served on the side. If the large help-yourself jar is not brought to your table, ask for it: That extra hit of salt and acid makes the masa pop. In fact, all the corn-based dishes taste better when dressed with the restaurant’s sauces. The fat Central American-style tamales ($3.25), wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with chicken or pork and potatoes, play well with a mild tomato sauce. The elotes ($3.50) — here meaning dense fried tamales with no wrapping and no filling — are corn-sweet but can be dry without a hefty dollop of the mellow Salvadoran crema served on the side.
The tricolor enchilada plate ($9.95) is pure Northern New Mexico comfort food. The beef, chicken, and cheese enchiladas — one each — are rolled in red, blue, and white tortillas and sided with the usual suspects: Spanish rice, refried beans, and a very plain posole. You can top it all with red or green chile. We are partial to the smooth, moderately spicy red.
Homemade flan ($3.50) has also been on the dessert menu since day one. Consistently smooth and silky, it just may be the best custard, at the best price, in town. — Patricia West-Barker
This post has been updated to clarify the location of Red Enchilada.
Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall on Second Street, the Ramblin’ Cafe (1420 Second St., 505-989-1272) is an under-the-radar destination for fans of no-frills mom ’n’ pop New Mexican food. The family-owned restaurant has been in business for 15 years, and the down-home kitsch of the place might recall your grandma’s house. There’s no plastic-covered couch, but there are ’70s-style waterfall landscapes by painter M. Scott hung all over the dimly lit dining room, a bottle-cap windchime, and a sprawling photo collage of friends, family, and Mexican wrestlers.
Order at the counter from a menu that sticks to regional classics: burritos, tacos, carne adovada, stuffed sopaipillas, and Indian tacos, among others. The bulging breakfast burrito ($6.50), ordered Christmas-style, arrives smothered with red and green and topped with a pre-grated cheese blend. Inside, a mountain of fluffy scrambled eggs mingles with salty home fries that are both creamy in the middle and crunchy where the griddle crisped them. The milder, garlicky red chile makes a good foil for the sinus-clearing green.
Ramblin’s green chile cheeseburger ($7.50) is as homespun as it gets. To the café’s classic-rock radio soundtrack of “Eye of the Tiger,” it came piping hot off the grill: an oversized and raggedy but well-seasoned patty, a melted slice of American cheese, shredded lettuce, and a moist heap of what might be the hottest green chile in town, all on a sesame-seed bun and sided with hot and crispy French fries right out of the fryer. Wash it down with a grapefruit Jarritos, a flavor not often found in many tiendas in town.
— Molly Boyle
Your reason for visiting Tiny’s Restaurant & Lounge (1005 S. St. Francis Dr., 505-983-9817, tinyssantafe.com) — founded in 1950 by Walter “Tiny” Moore — might determine which entrance you use. If you show up for live music or one of the popular karaoke nights in the low-slung, windowless bar, you’ll probably choose the nondescript door in the strip-mall parking lot, demarcated by a neon “OPEN” sign. Other regulars flock to Tiny’s for steak and seafood dinners in the more genteel dining room, parading in beneath an old-school awninged entrance. Entertainment at Tiny’s runs the gamut from bluegrass to blues, and though for me, karaoke is an activity better suited to one of the lower rings of Dante’s Hell, I’m happy to tag along and watch my friends get their kicks. On nights when the music calendar’s not brimming, the bar — not to mention the clandestine patio (which may be one of the best secret outdoor enclaves in town) — can be a veritable private oasis for a quiet cocktail, a snack, or a catch-up with an old pal. Enjoy a bowl of chips and salsa, appreciating the tomatoey sweetness, or crunch into crispy taquitos ($7.95) filled with chicken or beef. Even the hungriest among us will be satisfied by the famed chicken-guacamole tacos ($12.50), four corn tortillas stuffed till plump and almost unwieldy with shredded chicken, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and buttery guac and attended by generous sides of Spanish rice, pintos, and posole as well as the requisite follow-up sopaipilla.
— Laurel Gladden
Driving down Cerrillos Road, blink and you’ll miss the turn for El Comal Café (3571 Cerrillos Road, 505-471-3224), a hidey-hole in another strip mall that has been steadily serving Mexican and New Mexican standards for more than 30 years. Owner Alberto Aboytes, who hails from Querétaro, Mexico, also owns Lucia’s and Valentina’s, but El Comal feels like the mothership, with a gigantic menu that covers Mexican specialties (menudo, micheladas, tortas) and New Mexico classics (carne adovada, enchiladas, stuffed sopas).
Large, comfy old booths and bright purple walls, along with possibly the best chips and salsa in the city, provide a homey welcome. Truly, we made more than one joke about drinking the tangy garlic- and cumin-laced stuff straight from the bowl. An enormous stuffed sopaipilla ($7.95) made good use of nearly a whole shredded breast of soft white chicken; a carne asada taco ($3 for two) contained well-marinated beef; and a grilled T-bone steak ($16.95) topped with frizzled onions and served with creamy refried beans, perfect Spanish rice, and fresh guacamole was enough for two meals. Don’t miss the red chile — El Comal’s dark red sauce is beguilingly bittersweet, complex, and sinfully good. In fact, the devil is in the details at El Comal: Both the refried and pinto beans are not to be missed, tortillas are thick and handmade, and sopaipillas are well worth taking home for a late-night reheat. — M.B.
There was a time when, after you’d managed to get a seat at a table at the original Horseman’s Haven Café (4354 Cerrillos Road, 505-471-5420), your server might be smoking a cigarette while she scribbled down your order. Times — and apparently health codes — have changed, and it’s been years since the beloved café, which is owned and run by the Romero family and legendary for its spicy green chile, moved from the rickety skeleton of a former gas station into more spacious but still welcoming digs (that are a little further removed from the gas pumps). For me, Horseman’s is primarily a breakfast destination. (Two decades ago, it was a place whose generous portions and sweat-conjuring chile were ideal for smoothing the rough edges of a hangover from one too many margaritas the night before.) I still turn to Horseman’s for their breakfast burrito ($7.75), though in these more vegetarian-friendly days, requests to omit the bacon are met not with sidelong glances but with suggestions to sub beans instead. Their home fries have the ideal ratio of crispy brown surfaces to soft centers, and are, to my spud-loving mind, some of the best in town. Lunchtime and early dinner mean tacos, enchiladas, the famed Mucho Burger ($6.25), and steak — though you can certainly enjoy meat in the early hours of the day, too, with chorizo, carne adovada, and a ribeye ready and willing to accompany your eggs. While you wait for your food, pause to appreciate the family photos, announcements of high school wrestling championships, and horse paraphernalia. If you’re inured to the heat of New Mexico chile, you may not find the standard-issue green uncommonly hot, but unless pain is your favorite flavor, steer clear of the fabled “Level Two,” which has anecdotally also been used as a wintertime windshield defroster. — L.G.
In business on the Southside for almost 10 years, family-friendly Los Amigos Restaurant (3904 Rodeo Road, 505-490-1425) is home to classic New Mexican — think quesadillas, enchiladas, rellenos, and combo plates — and all-American comfort food like burgers, steak, chops, BLTs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. We go for the New Mexican classics.
Tri-color chips (no charge) with a fresh tomato salsa appear on the table almost as soon as you sit down. The posole ($6.99) is just the way your abuela would make it, if you had an abuela who knew her way around the kitchen: the hominy and pork are tender without being mushy, and the broth is tinged with moderately spicy red chile. The Frito pie ($7.99) is a fine bowl of beans, ground beef, and tortilla strips steeped in a deep, dark red chile sauce and topped with shredded cheese, chopped lettuce, and diced fresh tomatoes.
The chicken fajitas ($16.99) arrive in a sizzling cast-iron skillet, with the bird, red and green bell peppers, and onions nicely charred and well seasoned. Accompanied by a basket of warm tortillas, guac, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, sour cream, pintos, and rice, it’s enough to serve two generously. The enormous slab of five-layer chocolate cake ($5.99) also lives up to its hype. It’s rich, moist, and deeply chocolate without being cloying — and one slice will easily feed four. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with nightly specials, Los Amigos is worth a visit any time of day. — P.W.B.