SANTA FE, N.M. — Santacafé’s elegant patio has summer written all over it. And not only does the place look like a million bucks, the food is wonderful here, too. From a BLT fancied-up with roast red pepper garlic mayonnaise to chilled melon soup with a garnish of fresh mint, Santacafé offers a varied and artful brunch. Eating here makes you glad you’re hungry.
Although you don’t need to dress up for Santacafé, many locals do. It’s homage to the lovely food and the hard work of the well-dressed staff who serve it. I know the meals must be just as good indoors, but I find dining more delicious beneath umbrellas and the shade of the giant cottonwood in the historic courtyard. The restaurant sits in the northeast corner of the Padre Gallegos building with parking in the back. When weather allows, the enclosed patio becomes an outdoor dining room each summer.
Part of the challenge of running a restaurant, especially one that’s been around since 1983 like Santacafé, is striking a balance between the new and the tried-and-true. You’ll still find Santa Fe’s best calamari here with a lovely citrus dipping sauce, a recipe that has charmed customers season after season. Another longtime favorite, the shiitake mushroom and cactus spring rolls, are a treat so good even a hardened carnivore could enjoy it. On a recent visit with friends, I was pleased to discover some new dishes I hadn’t sampled before.
I sipped a glass of sparkling raspberry lemonade, refreshing, not too sweet, as I studied the menu. If you want something stronger, brunch cocktails include white peach Bellinis and the Santacafé Wasabi Bloody Mary. A server delivered a basket with house-made crackers and two other kinds of sliced bread and a small cup of soft butter to keep our appetites in check. Nice touch!
Each summer Sunday Santacafé offers a dozen brunch selections, a mix of breakfast favorites and lunch-style choices. I tried Santacafe’s version of the classic Salad Nicoise. Squeaky fresh baby spinach replaces the mixed greens that usually form the salad’s base. The dish came with four beautiful seared small tuna medallions, the deep red center framed with brown cooked edges. Long, fresh, slim green beans, capers, olives, quartered boiled red potatoes and wedges of hard-boiled egg completed the dish. The savory dressing added some pizzazz. I loved every bite. ($13)
One of my friends ordered a burger. It came with green chile and cheddar atop a thick patty of juicy beef. We loved the pile of hand-crafted waffle cut potato chips, as big as cricket paddles, thin and crisp. ($10.50) Another standby, chicken salad, rose to excellence with the addition of sweet golden raisins and slivered almonds. The soft avocado, crisp cucumber rounds and brilliant red tomatoes that tasted as though they’d been picked that morning encircled the mound of salad. ($14)
Santacafé’s take on Eggs Benedict arrived with a surprise: sunset orange hollandaise thanks to the addition of red Chimayo chile powder to the sauce. Grilled tomato and avocado replace the Canadian bacon, adding more color. The potatoes come with a touch of the Southwest, bits of New Mexican chorizo to give them standup character. Yum! ($13)
We might have resisted dessert except for two things. Two of my guests had ordered the coffee ice cream and it was sweetly frozen in their memories. ($8) They offered to share with the entire table, but then, I noticed the banana split for two ($13). What a classic summer treat! Each flavor of ice cream, coffee, vanilla, strawberry and chocolate tasted rich and homemade with the natural sweetness of cream and sugar. The coffee dessert arrived with a crisp topping, pinon nuts and swirls of caramel to add to the presentation and the flavor. The banana split reminded me of being a kid again. Each of the three scoops of ice cream had its own sauce and wore a crown of fresh whipped cream (not the aerosol) and a maraschino cherry. On both sides of the ice cream row was a soft, sweet banana half with a crisp warm coat of caramelized sugar. Roasted pecans and shredded dark chocolate in the chocolate ice cream added crunch.
I can’t think of anything that would have made our meal better. Food is a little more costly here than elsewhere in Santa Fe – our lunch with abundant dessert was about $20 a person – but worth it for both the quality of the meal, the ambiance, and the attentive service.
Santacafé is a Santa Fe classic for good reason. Enjoy the patio while you can. Dining among the leaves and bird song here is a hallmark of Santa Fe’s summer.