SANTA FE, N.M. — La Choza translates to “The Shed.” And, as everyone knows, the latter is the famous 65-year-old restaurant on Palace Avenue just off the Plaza, while the former, almost-as-famous establishment and hermanita to The Shed has been tucked along the railroad tracks on Alarid Street since 1983. Both places are still run by the remarkable Carswell family, originally from Springfield, Ill.
As noted previously in this space, popular restaurants suffer a kind of benign neglect and it’d been so long, we almost forgot how great La Choza is until we stopped in early one recent Saturday night.
At the opening bell, the line was out the door, a smattering of non-skiing visitors, locals, grandparents, kids, always nice to see. Sitting in the warm, festive bar of the rambling old adobe, you can still feel the good vibes from its previous existence as the bunkhouse of the old Mercer Ranch.
After a full-page list of tequilas and almost two dozen margaritas especiales were perused, we re-acquainted ourselves with The House margarita ($7.75) with salt. Only complaint – the homemade mix is fresh-squeezed lime and lemon, and a simple syrup. No, I think no lemon. Lime only.
The Shed and La Choza, being sisters, have a lot of personality and culinary traits in common – charming adobes, authentic atmosphere, red and green chili sauces from the same recipe – but there are differences. As previously noted, we’re true nachoficianados, and one thing La Choza offers that The Shed does not is classic nachos ($9.75/$11.75 with chicken or beef). Pretty good, though it’s best not to top things off with the red salsa and guacamole. Put ’em on the side like the sour cream and chopped jalapeños, where they don’t cool everything down.
Counterintuitively, and after an initial “Huh?,” we couldn’t resist a cup of the green chile clam chowder, New England style ($5 cup/$8 bowl), and were delighted we didn’t. Nice chunks of firm fingerling potatoes, bits of lean pork and lots of clams, and the pièce de résistance green chile in a velvety, NOT too salty cream base that would bring any Yankee back for more.
For dinner, the combination plate with its many choices ($13.75 two items/$16 three items) seemed the best strategy. We settled on carne adovada, firm cubes of pork that was a middling 5 on a “picante” scale of 10, of which even Goldilocks would approve; blue corn cheese enchilada (maybe a bit onion-y, but that’s the way), and a pork tamale that was notably picante (about 7.5 on the Goldilocks Scale, and made in La Choza’s kitchen by the establishment’s own tamalera), served with pinto beans, and crisp posole with chunks of pork, lettuce and tomato.
Classic, superb and you cannot go wrong. Dividend Alert: You could feed a grown family of three on the combo plate, or one person over two days – dinner and lunch next day – which it did in this case.
And speaking of classic, the French apple pie for dessert (only $4!), house-made, Granny Smith apples, English walnuts, brown sugar and cinnamon, fresh whipped cream, is just that.
La Choza, like its big sister The Shed, remains imposingly popular because of its authentic northern New Mexico history and charm, its extraordinary quality at amazing value and the swarm, almost family-style service. And both establishments maintain unique identities.
Our wonderful server noted that she had been working at La Choza for 15 years and when asked if she ever went over and waited at The Shed, she regarded us with horror. “NO! Never!” she exclaimed. “I am loyal to La Choza!”
And no wonder.