Restaurants have missed us, and we’ve missed them. We’ve thought a lot lately about the dishes we really, truly miss — meals we couldn’t begin to approximate in our home kitchens, but also dishes that are part and parcel of a larger, singular experience of sitting in a restaurant dining room. The food that comes out of so many kitchens in our city is remarkable, but that’s not all we dine out for. It’s the buzz, our fellow diners, the plates arriving hot from the kitchen, and perhaps a house-crafted cocktail — these all contribute to the enjoyment. So here is our brief tribute to a few of the foods that make us excited to live and eat in Santa Fe, to the glorious variety of flavors and cuisines just beyond our doorsteps, and to the chefs, cooks, vendors, servers, bartenders, bussers, and dishwashers who make it all possible.
Sassella (225 Johnson St., 505-982-6734, sassella santafe.com) has been serving a special lunch and dinner menu via takeout or delivery six days a week for the past few months. But a to-go box just can’t deliver the experience of relaxing on the restaurant’s spacious, tree-lined patio with a well-composed cocktail and an app or two. I’m hoping Sassella’s signature Caesar salad will make it back onto the menu in its original form — a small head of romaine lettuce standing upright in an oddly delicious pool of creamy tonnato sauce crowned with a crisp halo of toasted bread. (The Caesar on the takeout menu has been featuring a more box-friendly chopped romaine.) I’m also looking forward to continuing to explore Sassella’s deep cocktail program, which features a sizable collection of high-quality and craft gins and a larger-than-usual selection of aperitivi, including a number of variations on a personal favorite, the Negroni. I plan to sit back, take a sip, hold my head just so, and squint a bit: This may be as close I come to a visit to Florence for the next few years.
Loyal Hound Pub (730 St. Michael’s Drive, Plaza del Sur shopping center, 505-471-0440, loyalhoundpub .com) has been closed since the lockdown began, but I hope owners are making plans to reopen the casual and comfy neighborhood spot. As soon as a safe table is available, I will be back for a hefty plate of chicken and waffles. Loyal Hound’s interpretation of the dynamic soul-food duo layers boneless brined, grilled, and flash-fried chicken thighs atop crisp, light, buttermilk-chive waffles, then bathes it all in a generous pour of maple syrup. The green apples, green chile, and red and white cabbage in the slaw-on-the-side cut through the richness and the sweetness to balance it all out. It’s a somewhat messy, sensuously over-the-top treat that’s just what I want and need right now.
El Nido (1577 Bishops Lodge Road, 505-954-1272, elnidosantafe.com) seemed to be settling into its sensitively updated historic Tesuque Village niche just as the pandemic rocked the restaurant world. Although the house has been offering curbside pick-up for the past few months, my favorite starter has not been on the special takeout menu. El Nido’s take on calamari fritti was one of the best in town: crunchy, tender, perfectly cooked squid coated with a light dill- and parsley-scented batter, sitting atop a dip-worthy puddle of aioli accented with salty preserved lemons. I hope it returns to the menu when dine-in service returns the restaurant. I’m also looking forward to a slice of El Nido’s smoky, wood-fired pizza. Although the takeout menu now calls the pies “rustic flatbreads,” I hope to find a variation on the pizza formerly known as cavernicola, which layered spicy pork sausage and an especially good pepperoni on an almost cracker-thin crust. It was crisp, salty, and meaty — and I hope to find its like again, preferably while lounging in the atmospheric Zozobra bar at the heart of the house.
A breakfast at Café Pasqual’s (121 Don Gaspar Ave., 505-983-9340, pasquals.com) more than 25 years ago opened the door to my move to Santa Fe, and I often revisit the iconic Santa Fe restaurant in honor of that event to enjoy the colorful, folk-art-filled dining room and sample new and long-time menu favorites. That cheerful space is something I’ve been missing these past few months. After a brief stab at curbside pick-up when the governor shuttered dine-in restaurants, executive chef/owner Katharine Kagel closed Pasqual’s for the duration of the lockdown. While she has no definite date yet, Kagel says Pasqual’s will be reopening soon, with tables both inside and outside its longtime home (check the website for updates). When the day comes, I will be there for breakfast. Smoked trout hash, griddled mascarpone polenta with sautéed chorizo, huevos motuleños, and the huevos rancheros and corned beef hash we had on our first visit — I’ll take one of each, please — along with a steaming cappuccino in a bowl that celebrates the wisdom of “panza llena, corazón contento,” as only Pasqual’s can.
The brief ingredient roster of the “world famous” butternut squash casserole at Cowgirl BBQ (319 S. Guadalupe St., 505-982-2565, cowgirlsantafe.com) includes only four items: roasted squash, caramelized onions, Monterey jack cheese, and breadcrumbs. But they’re combined using some sort of culinary black magic wherein the whole unquestionably becomes greater than the sum of its humble parts. Every ingredient brings something vital to the plate — the deep vegetal sweetness of the squash, caramelized onions that taste like savory candy, the salty creaminess of the Jack cheese, and the often bronzed and nutty but always buttery breadcrumb topping. In a world where casseroles are enjoying newfound stardom, this one feels both nutritious and comforting, which is exactly what all of us still need and want right now. My favorite complement to practically anything the Cowgirl serves is the equally celebrated Lava Lamp, a beverage that mirrors its hippie-era namesake with dollops of frozen margarita floating in a pint of golden, effervescent beer.
Don’t tell my husband, but for at least a year or so, I’ve been having a love affair with the spinach enchiladas at La Choza (905 Alarid St., 505-982-0909, lachozasf.com). What must be a pound or more of leafy greens and corn tortillas are slathered in Choza’s illustrious red chile — slightly bitter, vaguely sweet, euphoria-inducing, and arguably the best in town. Sure, I’ve been able to order them to go, but takeout doesn’t fully scratch the enchilada itch. They’re just not the same as when they land on the table, the plate scalding hot, and the chile roiling at the edges. I also miss “the Trio” — queso, guac, and picante salsa served a basket of crunchy tortilla chips — the buttery garlic bread, and those Choza margaritas. My preferred poison is the Choza Silver, an ice-cold elixir blending house sour mix (made with fresh lemon and lime juices), Hornitos tequila, and triple sec with a mouthwateringly salty rim.
In my pandemic food fantasies, I’m on the chic, breezy patio at Santacafé (231 Washington Ave., 505-984-1788, santacafe.com) enjoying the restaurant’s legendary calamari; the ahi appetizer, a newcomer; and a glass of chilled sparkling something-or-another from Gruet. I really needn’t add my voice to the legions of others describing and praising Santacafé’s unique treatment of what has, over the last two decades, become a “bar and grille staple,” but here goes: This calamari leaves rubbery, cornmeal-nubbly iterations in the dust on its way to being something unparalleled and ethereal. Classified as one of the menu’s “Must Haves,” the irresistible ahi appetizer combines shatteringly crisp wonton “taco” shells and lightly toasted knobs of rice, respectively stuffed and topped with dreamy, lightly dressed butter-soft fish.
Upon our return to restaurant dining, I’d be remiss in not paying hungry homage to local dining crusader Erin Wade and Vinaigrette (709 Don Cubero Alley, 505-820-9205, vinaigretteonline.com/santa_fe). I’ve been longing for one of this self-proclaimed salad bistro’s serious, creative, very filling salads — namely my two faves, the All Kale Caesar! (shredded kale and chopped Marcona almonds dressed with a distinctive zesty lemon-anchovy vinaigrette and topped with fresh Parmesan and more anchovies) and the Omega (leafy greens, corn, bell pepper, tomato, avocado, red onion, cilantro, and toasted pine nuts in a blue cheese vinaigrette). Anything on Vinaigrette’s menu can and should be enjoyed in the shade of a tree on their idyllic back patio, perhaps with a glass of perfectly chilled rosé on the side.