SANTA FE, N.M. — A first visit to Opuntia Café can be a little bewildering when you walk into the light-saturated space in the Baca Street Railyard district. No one greets you at the door and offers seating, yet the lack of a big blackboard with a menu doesn’t offer the clue that you’re supposed to order at the counter.
A bustling employee, though, was happy to give the lay of the land, instructing us to order at the register – written menus are on hand for consultation – and seat ourselves.
All tables are considered community tables, she said, so diners are welcome to ask others if they can join them. A good way to meet new people, but not the best choice for personal conversation, so my guest and I opted to take seats at the counter.
That has its positive and negative points: The plus is that we could easily nab a worker for a question, but the downside was that our counter also was shared by workers folding forks, spoons and knives into napkins, cutting down on the sense of privacy.
There also was a comfy space with stuffed seating around a coffee table, something that might not work too well for a meal, but would be perfect for lounging with a hot drink.
And in this case, the hot drink to savor would be tea. Opuntia prides itself on offering a curated list of fine teas, with a few selections from the categories of black, green, white, oolong and pu-erh. And yeah, there’s herbal, too, but why fritter away your chance to taste a true, loose-leafed tea the way it’s supposed to be prepared?
Tea is my caffeinated drink of choice, with its roots in my childhood when a cup of Lipton’s with lemon was the “treatment” for a cold or other respiratory illness. Since I thought of it as medicinal, I figured it was supposed to taste bitter and never added sugar. Since then, I’ve expanded my explorations to a range of tea types and flavors, but I confess 99 percent of my tea-drinking still involves splashing boiling water over a bag in mug.
It was a revelation, then, to experience the complexity of flavors revealed with my choice of “Maiden’s Ecstasy” ($4.50) from the smoky, earthy pu-erh family of teas. I didn’t quite reach the heights enacted by Meg Ryan in her deli scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” but was quite satisfied. The tea is served in a glass pot for the diner to pour into a small cup. The tea also got a thumbs-up from my guest, who didn’t order one herself, but sipped a sampling of mine.
The food also was pleasing, but perhaps less interesting. My guest ordered the Turkish chicken salad ($9), which consisted of roasted chicken, red onion, celery, walnut-tahini dressing, toasted walnuts, watercress, Persian cucumber, and lemon aioli, according to the menu. She found it a tad dull, speculating that it might have been spiced up with a little more onion. I was less critical, enjoying the interplay of flavors and textures.
I decided to try a cup of the Kabocha squash soup ($3), which was delicious! A helpful worker informed me that, besides the squash, the ingredients included red curry, roasted pepper and carrots, leading to a subtle spiciness and rich flavor. Unfortunately, both the soup and entree were served together, making it a challenge to enjoy both at their proper temperatures.
Since I’m a mushroom-lover, my entree choice was the mushroom tartine ($8.50), with kale, roasted garlic, aioli and two cheeses – fontal and reggiano – joining the fungi atop a countrywhite toast. It was very tasty, but I did notice a salty aftertaste lingering on my palate for a couple of hours after the meal.
I would be interested in going back to try the Japanese bowl or polenta bowl, or the much-buzzed-about avocado toast. Or perhaps I could just linger over a pot of one of the many intriguing teas on the menu.
Besides the food and tea, Opuntia also has items for sale, including many small plants, particularly succulents, that lined a shelf along the wall of windows at the north side of the cafe.
That explains why the business is open for a few hours after the kitchen closes. The plant theme is carried out in the cafe’s name, which is a genus of cactus including prickly pear and many others.