Chef and entrepreneur Greg Menke has been as busy as the bees he champions, opening first one, then another, restaurant in the downtown Plaza Galeria. The eateries anchor the two ends of the building’s long, street-level corridor: The shiny-new Café Atalaya turns sparkling floor-to-ceiling windows toward the Plaza, while the reincarnated Beestro faces Water Street, in the space once occupied by Subway.
The veteran chef — who put in time at Coyote Café before opening, and then closing, The Beestro, a much-loved lunch spot on Marcy Street, as well as its also shuttered offshoots The Hive Market and The Root Cellar — can be seen buzzing in and out of both restaurants. He griddles a crepe in one, checks a falafel ball in the other, and works the register, bringing new life and energy to a somewhat gloomy urban mall.
When Greg Menke reopened The Beestro in the back of the Plaza Galeria in June 2018, he retained the original luncheon spot’s emphasis on fresh and healthy fast food. The menu at the new location has shifted, however, from American soup, salad, and sandwiches toward the cuisine of the Middle East, Greece, and North Africa, where chickpeas, rice, eggplant, yogurt, and pita reign.
The concept is simple, a spin on mega-chains like Chipotle: Choose a stuffed pita, a bowl of fresh greens, or a plate of saffron rice, and move on down the line, selecting such add-ins as house-made hummus and baba ganoush, small-diced cucumber-tomato salad, an assortment of pickled and raw vegetables, five proteins, four classic sauces, and another four salad dressings, all with a Mediterranean accent.
The pita pocket ($7.95) — stuffed with fresh greens, crisp falafel, quinoa tabbouleh, feta, beet salad, pickles, and green chile, then drizzled with tahini sauce — was a gloriously messy and tasty treat. The warm and fluffy pita, sourced from a Palestinian bakery in Albuquerque, was itself worthy of praise.
We loaded the rice plate with falafel ($10.95), too — and just about every vegetable option available, the sweet and salty, soft and crunchy bits peering up between the well-separated grains of rice.
A side of Belgian fries ($4), cooked to order, were hot, salty, and crisp. Iced tea and lemonade (both $2.75) tasted like they were made on the premises.
If the mains are a tad too much, small plates offer less filling options. The creamy 50/50 baba-hummus plate ($7.45), served with a piece of pita, was a meal in itself. It’s garnished with whole chickpeas and cucumber-tomato salad, then drizzled with olive oil and pomegranate molasses before being sprinkled with flavor-boosting dried herbs and spices (sumac, za’atar, and cumin, among others).
Sides of salmon or meat — sliced or chopped to fit into a sandwich or top a salad or rice bowl — are a good alternative for people avoiding carbs. The beef ($4.50), chicken ($4.50), and lamb ($4.95) were tender and only lightly seasoned, providing an almost neutral palette for the sauces: The yogurt-based tzatziki; the green-chile zhoug, a spicy sauce of Yemini origin; soulful tahini sauce; and the piquant Tunisian red-chile harissa.
The Beestro markets itself as “the fastest lunch service on the Plaza,” and while we haven’t conducted any trials, you can order online or zip through the assembly process pretty quickly, eat and run, or linger in the adjacent dining room. A bonus: If you like to play with your food — combining ingredients and condiments in various ways to create different flavors and textures — The Beestro offers multiple opportunities to do just that.
Out in front at the Plaza Galeria, Café Atalaya — a combination creperie, coffee shop, and gelateria — brings a touch of Italy and France to the Santa Fe Plaza. Atalaya is usually translated from the Spanish as “watchtower,” but an alternative definition is “vantage point” — and the highly visible café certainly has that.
The coffee — from a single-origin, small-batch roaster in Las Cruces — is neither very dark nor very light, which should make it acceptable to most patrons. Chai, hot and iced teas, lemonades, and hot chocolate round out the beverage offerings.
More than a dozen rotating gelatos and sorbets are enticing. The all-natural gelato is sourced from the Grateful Spoon in Phoenix: no bases, starters, or mixes muddy the smooth texture and light, clean flavors. Sorbets are vegan and gluten-free. The salted caramel gelato was soft and sensual. The less-sweet, pale-green pistachio was firmer and flecked with bits of nuts. Both were delicious.
The crepes are made to order on four small griddles in front of the Plaza-facing windows — a theatrical touch for customers and passers-by. Menke’s crepes are not rolled, but rather pleated or folded in a variety of shapes related to their toppings.
The Crepe Complete ($8.95), a classic combination of eggs, ham, and Gruyère in a thin puddle of béchamel sauce, is hexagonal. You can order the egg that tops it scrambled, but we liked it over-easy. The soft, golden globe perched in the center of the crepe was both beautiful and perfectly cooked.
The gluten-free spinach and mushroom buckwheat crepe ($10.50) was folded into a cone. The spinach was lightly sautéed, the mushrooms a bit chewy, the whole enhanced with additions of feta, garlic, and dill so fresh you could smell it. The triangular smoked salmon crepe ($12.95) layered the fish over a swath of cream cheese, then topped it with a mosaic of sliced hard-boiled egg, diced red onion and tomato, sliced cucumber, and a pile of briny capers. It took a minute to adjust to a crepe served cold, but it was a delicious — and much lighter — variation on a traditional bagel and lox sandwich.
Additional savory crepes on the regular menu include a turkey club, green chile chicken, and all-day breakfast burrito with a thin crepe subbing for the thicker tortilla.
Sweet crepes show another side of the lacy pancake. Menu standards include one filled with berries, yogurt, honey, and granola, as well as a Nutella, strawberry, and banana variation. We opted for the very simple, and simply delicious, fan-shaped lemon-sugar crepe ($6.95) swimming in a buttery lake of fresh lemon syrup. Had we been alone in the room, we would have licked the plate. The cajeta crepe ($8.95) combined the goat-milk caramel with a hefty serving of toasted pecans topped with both a vanilla-flecked gelato and a dollop of whipped cream. It was heavier but equally delicious.
While it’s been relatively quiet most of this season, a recent Sunday of a three-day weekend found the café jammed with vacationers and skiers. Get there soon if you want to sample the odd collection of well-curated goods before the lines at the counter get three-deep. ◀