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A tale of two lunches at the Tune-Up Cafe

SANTA FE, N.M. — It was the best of fries, it was the worst of fries.

And like Dickens’ editor, I can hear mine, “Really? C’mon, it can’t be both!”

But yes, ’tis true. Which only once again proves my point that, while tragedy can happen any ol’ time, timing is everything in comedy and restaurant-going.

Everybody has their good days and bad days, and restaurants do, too.

So that lead for this piece came to mind after a couple of recent lunches at the always and ever-popular Tune-Up Cafe, one quite different from the other.

The cafe could qualify as one of those places that’s popular because people go there, and people go there because it’s popular.

It’s got a great location, which counts for a lot in pitching, real estate and restaurants, established long ago by the former (and also popular) “Dave’s Not Here” just west of St. Francis Dr. Tons of free parking in lots and on the street, it qualifies as that rarest of establishments in Santa Fe, “a great neighborhood joint.”

And it’s good enough, enough of the time, to maintain a good reputation. Over the years, I’ve had excellent dinners at excellent value, with table service, outside in warm weather, and in one of their two cozy inside rooms. Breakfasts and lunches are served counter-style, just queue right up, make your call and grab a table. Or if you’re lucky, as I was in my two lunches, grab the booth.

Lunch #1: With my old pal, The Director, I eschew my favorite and the best “go-to” breakfast/brunch in town, Steak and Eggs ($9.95, sirloin, 2 eggs, scallion hashbrowns and chile!) and, cutting back on red meat, go for the Tuna Melt (with cheddar, lettuce and tomato on 9-grain bread). The Dir. orders a favorite of his and many others, the Cubano ($9.95, citrus-and-garlic-marinated pork loin, cured ham and swiss on pressed ciabatta).

It’s always the little things that strike me, and the first thing is that everyone knows a tuna melt is served open-face. No problem, and not a problem here, but it’s an “enclosed” sandwich, the tomatoes are razor thin and tasteless (noted: all Tune-Up ingredients are fresh and locally sourced as much as possible – it’s just not tomato season), the pickle is withered and the french fries, though hand-cut, are molto al dente, soggy and cold. Not good.

Ditto The Director’s favorite Cubano, which he finds, and I agree, too densely packed and just too overlarge, the pork loin too thickly sliced and dry, the pickle and french fries, limp and cold.

In short, a flat day for Tune-Up.

Cut to: LUNCH #2: A new day, new lunch and the best of times with the Good Doctor in tow. We give a good long look to the Specials on the big board above the register and go with the Special Chicken Sandwich ($10.95, chicken, caramelized onion, avocado, jalapeño, arugula, garlic mayo on green chile cheese bread). Bingo! The chicken chunks are tender, juicy and a happy combination of ingredients in just the right amounts. The perfect sandwich, and even the pickle and fries have perked up a bit.

The Good Doctor goes for a special, as well, the Organic Chicken Livers ($10.95, served with spinach, caramelized onion, jalapeño, bacon, marsala wine and ciabatta bread, topped with 2 eggs any style), and again, a pluperfect call with two thumbs up from the Doctor.

Tune-Up was perfectly in tune this day, and what a difference a lunch makes – fresh ingredients, deftly served, at great value.

Restaurants are rated on a scale up to four stars.