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Go for the food – and for the frescoes!

SANTA FE, N.M. — Locals and visitors alike search out Billy Goat’s tavern down on Lower Wacker Dr. in Chicago, or Les Deux Magots in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, not because the burgers are so great or the espresso so tasty. (Though they are.) No, we go because the establishments are unchanging links to a romanticized past, and Mike Royko and Jean Paul Sartre hung out in the respective joints.

In Santa Fe, Maria’s on Cordova Road is just such a spot.

Opened by local Maria Lopez during the 1950 Santa Fe Fiestas, Maria’s was originally a take-out operation featuring New Mexican fare. In the course of expansion and several different owners, presidents, movie stars and la gente have come to Maria’s, and made it renowned for its authenticity and as the go-to place for margaritas – over 200 on the bar list – and a selection of 170 different tequilas.

For nearly three decades, Maria’s was owned by Santa Fe natives Al and Laurie Lucero. (Mr. Lucero in fact wrote “The Great Margarita Book,” with a foreword by Robert Redford, and it’s on sale right here.)

In 2013, the venerable eatery was purchased by businessman Gerald Peters and became part of his Santa Fe Dining group. To Peters’ credit, the essence of Maria’s remains.

Maria’s is pretty much beyond review, as most icons are, and so this will have to pass as a sort-of review, and more an appreciation.

A recent cocktail hour visit with a friend revealed a few things and reminded us of others. First, there is no happy hour. Presumably, every hour is happy at Maria’s. Next, there is only one place to sit in Marias, in the cantina. It’s cozy and dark enough, and yet has some sweet natural light from the southwest corner windows. The great furniture is from the pre-WWII La Fonda Hotel, and the fired-brick wainscoting and accents around the bar is from the old New Mexico State Prison, which was nearby back in the day. Excellent, but the spot to sit is in one of two intimate, red-leather booths. (We got the one “permanently reserved” for Al and Laurie.) Wimbledon was unobtrusively on the telly, nobody was on their cellphone at the bar (true), chips and muy picante red chile salsa is delivered gratis, and the Bargain Basement Margarita, with a dash of Cointreau, lives up to its moniker, and with a kick, at $9.

There are nachos and there are Nachos, and Maria’s House Nachos of chips layered with refried beans, pico de gallo, green chile, guacamole, sour cream and Monterey jack cheese are the real deal, and a steal at $6.95 (add $2.50 for beef or chicken).

Next, we had to have Maria’s “Famous” Green Chile Meatballs ($7, another great value) of lean ground beef with green chile and “secret ingredients” (garlic salt, a smidge of cilantro?) smothered in superb green chile stew. After that, who needs an entree?

We did, and ordered what one must in an authentic New Mexico restaurant, Blue Corn Enchiladas ($10.25, add $2.50 for chicken, beef or carne adovada), cheese only, thanks, and with rice, beans, a garnish of fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Perfect. As for chile, we did what we never do and ordered “Christmas” to find that Maria’s red is a rather dark and earthy flavor, and the green chile crisp, straight ahead and pretty spicy. A very happy combination, in fact, and the way to go at Maria’s when faced with that momentous choice – red or green?

Finally, we note that we have written before about the late, great, overlooked artist Alfred Morang and his charming frescoes-for-food-and-drink at El Farol on Canyon Road. Well, here in Maria’s cantina, there are five more – absolutely vivid, stirring portraits and scenes (Spain, Italy? And who is the gorgeous redhead in the corner?), largish and small.

And believe me, if Maria’s margaritas, worthy fare and ambience don’t lift your spirits, some quality time with the Morangs will absolutely do the trick.

Maria’s. Gotta go!