SANTA FE, N.M. — Open for about nine months, Casa Chimayo offers a menu built on traditional New Mexican food with a few Mexican touches. The owners have redone Casa Chimayo’s interior (a space that has seen many restaurants come and go), creating a sort of mini-museum with photos and weavings from Chimayó, a traditional community known for its red chile and the historic Santuario. Each Holy Week, pilgrims from throughout New Mexico (and beyond) walk to the old church in a gesture of gratitude or seeking God’s favor.
Casa Chimayo is also starting to draw a crowd. Well-regarded on website review sites, this family-owned, family-run establishment is an easy walk from Santa Fe’s downtown hotels. Locals will discover that the food isn’t toned down to cater to palates unfamiliar with chile-based choices. The green chile had plenty of heat … so much that we used some sour cream to dampen the flames the night my four friends and I visited.
The menu, the same for lunch and dinner, includes posole, green chile stew, six kinds of burritos served with pinto beans, combination plates and Platos de las Abuelitas, grandmothers’ favorites of tacos, enchiladas, a chile relleno, carne adovada and fajitas. Dinner included four specials. From noon to 2 and 5 to 7 p.m., you can enjoy $5 food specials including Frito pie.
My friends and I shared a large table on the mostly covered patio. During the course of the evening, we heard rain against the tarps that provide shade and cover two or three separate times. We never got wet, and the smell of summer added to our pleasure.
We started by sharing a pair of appetizers. The fabulous “Chile en Nogada” ($14) looked like contemporary art on a plate. Mild farmer’s cheese comprised the main ingredient in the sauce that wore jewel-like red pomegranate seeds and golden piñon nuts as flavorful accessories. Beneath this, we enjoyed a large, hot, poblano chile stuffed with savory ground beef and spices. The combination of flavor and texture created gourmet fare, far more exotic than I expected from this unassuming restaurant. This rich dish would serve nicely as an entree. It struck me as an odd appetizer – rich and filling. But I guess you could say the same about foie gras. The chile would be a great side dish to go with a salad and the posole or green chile stew as a meal. The plantain mole enchilada, another appetizer, sounded interesting, but a lack of ripe plantains made it unavailable. The guacamole ($10) included fresh corn and came in an interesting lava bowl or molcajete. But the guac itself was under-seasoned. The complimentary salsa, however, tasted fresh and had a nice, mellow spiciness.
We each had a different main course, and each was tasty. Selecting from the dinner menu insert, I considered chicken mole and steak with chile. The restaurant had run out of shrimp, so “El Californio,” bacon-wrapped shrimp and grilled green chile with a shirt steak, was unavailable. The trout won my vote, and I loved it from first bite to last. The mild, fresh fish filet arrived headless, deboned and pan fried. The menu said “battered,” but it wasn’t, which made me like it all the more. Delicious zucchini cooked with slices of onion accompanied it along with light wild rice ($18).
The fajitas ($20) didn’t punish the chicken breast by overcooking. Guacamole that tasted fresher than our appetizer serving, sour cream and pinto beans, all in small but adequate quantities, came with it. The surprise? Just one flour tortilla to wrap the goodies in. (Pick corn, receive two.) Tortillas are inexpensive, and at the price, this seemed miserly.
The chicken burrito ($9) arrived well-stuffed and smothered in green chile as requested. It and the tamale plate ($12) both came with pinto beans. The two pork tamales came as requested with red chile on top, and could have used more. I prefer tamales with a larger meat-to-masa ratio, but the masa itself was soft and tasty.
The dessert menu ($2 to $8) eschews cheesecake, ice cream and chocolate lava cake for traditional New Mexican options including natillas (a soft pudding), anise-flavored bizcochitos and pastelitos, a New Mexican version of strudel. We tried the apricot empanaditas and the flan. The empanaditas, fruit-filled pastries, needed more fruit, less sugar and a crisper crust. The flan was too sweet and had too much egg flavor for my taste, but one of my dining companions gobbled it up without a word of complaint. On a previous visit I enjoyed the mild, sweet vanilla flavor of the natillas, although the soupy texture didn’t quite work.
Casa Chimayo offers live entertainment on selected nights. Parking is street side if you’re lucky or in the paved lot across the street with an attendant to collect your $3.
Our waitress, Danielle, provided friendly, efficient service with a smile throughout the meal. She told us she was part of the family that owns the place. Then she showed us her wide, honey-colored belt, an antique, handmade leather bandolero that had belonged to an older cousin.
Casa Chimayo has an old-fashioned, non-corporate ambiance. Locals will note that the prices reflect the downtown location.