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Rooftop Elegance: Coyote Cantina a colorful culinary charmer

SANTA FE, N.M. — When Coyote Cafe opened in Santa Fe exactly 30 years ago, it embodied the new culinary imagination then sweeping the country. Now, those revolutionary ideas are as familiar as old friends, but no less loved for that. Something of that original playfulness remains, too, especially at Coyote’s Cantina, one of the city’s first rooftop venues, where tropical colors, a jazzy soundtrack and imaginative cocktails rule the day (and night).

We sampled lunch up there recently, and were well pleased. The menu runs to New Mexican favorites upgraded by a serious understanding of their Mexican origins. Not revolutionary, but certainly part of the reason our local cuisine has been able to hold its own through these years of change.

My guest was apparently in a seafood mood, so we started our meal with tempura shrimp ($16), five lightly battered shrimp, each impaled on a kebab stick and served in a shot glass of sweet-sour or horseradish sauce. I wasn’t sure which culinary traditions these creations belong to, but they were tasty: smattered with black sesame seeds, in one sauce both sweet and fiery, and the other creamy and sharp – not quite the same as fiery on the tongue, but not far from it.

I was more intrigued by the ceviche items on the menu, including a yellowfin tuna served tartare with a mango-lemongrass salsa and radishes. But it was lunch; we had to save room for dessert and I knew better than to eat too much up front. But next time, I’m exploring the raw fish menu.

Continuing on her fixation du jour, my companion chose the prawns with griddled corncakes ($15) as her main course. It was excellent: Five large shrimp in a slightly tomatoey chile sauce atop two of the best corncakes I’ve ever tasted.

What made these pancakes special was the smoky flavor. A good pancake chef myself, I wondered how Coyote’s chefs had achieved that “straight off the grill” touch in a dish that we all know came straight of a griddle atop a stove burner. A dollop of guacamole and some fresh, house-made salsa finished off the plate.

I opted for that quintessential Mexican dish, steak tampiquena ($23). It was all it should be, which is to say, not filet mignon. The generous piece of skirt steak was grilled the requested medium rare and dished up with some of the best Mexican-style beans I’ve ever eaten, with a side of cilantro-laced rice and a salsa of pickled cactus pads – nopalitos – and fresh tomato and onions.

Desserts are not the focus of the Cantina’s menu, which is not to say they were unimaginative. We settled on rice pudding and churros (each $6), the latter a classic 16th-century Spanish dessert, transplanted to the Americas in this case by its side of dark chocolate sauce. I liked the caramel dipping sauce that also came alongside better. The churros themselves were crispy and filled with something like custard or frosting that, given the very slender dimensions of the proper churro, was not quite identifiable. But the sauces were the redemption of the dish.

Rice pudding sounds boring, but the Cantina’s version of it was not: It was light, creamy but slightly crunchy, well flavored with vanilla, and topped with sliced banana and coconut. Not sweetened American coconut, but the real stuff, grated straight out of the shell.

The service at the Cantina is excellent, anticipatory without hovering and absolutely knowledgeable. We were buoyed by the cantina’s colors, as well as the special feeling that comes with rooftops – such a fresh perspective on life down on the ground. If you’re not in the mood for serious cuisine in formal surroundings, as you will get downstairs at the Coyote Cafe, the cantina is a lighter, but no less excellent alternative.