The entree is dead.
So says chef James Campbell Caruso, owner of La Boca and its new Spanish tapas sister, Taberna La Boca.
“I’d rather flirt with some sexy tapas than be married to a big, ugly entree,” he added.
Taberna, a more rustic version of the popular La Boca on Marcy in downtown Santa Fe, opened Wednesday at 125 Lincoln Ave.
The decision to expand on La Boca was an obvious one. The original restaurant is tiny, seating just 50. It’s so small that Caruso is regularly forced to turn potential diners away.
“It’s really hard to get into,” he explained. “We turn people away all the time.”
Taberna, or “Tavern,” seats 42 inside, with 24 additional seats on the outside patio.
It also features a traditionally long Spanish bar, where diners can feast on what Caruso calls “rustic tapas.” Many start with bread. Dishes such as albondigas, pork meatballs with cumin tomato sauce, or serranitos, a meaty combination of pork and roasted chile baguette toasts. For salad lovers, there’s olivada, a green olive salad with garlic on olive oil toasts. Carnivores can go for grilled chistorra, a traditional Basque sausage. Gourmands also can select canned sardines from Spain.
“They’re a lot better in Spain,” Caruso said. “They’re just experts at canning. They’re considered a delicacy.”
For dessert, diners can try a pan de chocolate – toasted bread with melted chocolate, sea salt and paprika, made by the pastry chef, Caruso’s wife, Leslie. The restaurant will also offer frozen custard with dates and raisins accompanied by a shot of Pedro Ximenez sherry. Taberna will also offer some breakfast bread and treats.
Caruso grew up far from Spain in Norwood, Mass., in a largely Italian family. His passion for both food and cooking bloomed at his grandmother’s feet. Although mostly Italian, she was part Basque.
“She had a unique Mediterranean style,” he said.
Caruso moved to Albuquerque in 1987, where he explored the traditional New Mexican food all around him.
“The dishes I really liked pulled me back to the Spanish influence, so I started researching it.”
Soon there were multiple trips to Spain filled with cooking and tasting. Tapas date back just 200 years (not much time in European terms) to southern Spain. Some say they originated in the sherry bars, where owners would place a piece of bread atop the glass to protect the potion from flies.
Caruso discovered layers of flavors in the nuances of Spanish cooking stemming from national pride, tradition and exuberance over both food and cooking, tempered with a respect for ingredients.
Caruso has worked as a Santa Fe chef since 1996, with posts at La Casa Sena and the legendary El Farol tapas restaurant, where he was executive chef for seven years. He opened La Boca in 2006. The restaurant has been acclaimed in the New York Times, the Food Network, Travel and Leisure and Esquire.
Today, tapas have evolved into a social setting. They produce a gathering place where diners can sample new dishes, talk and share meals.
Caruso suggests tapas neophytes start with two or three dishes. Prices range from $4 to $12 per plate. Between June and October, 99 percent of the produce used is local.
“It’s very informal,” he said. “You can keep going until you tell us to stop. You keep a menu at the table.”
There are plans to add flamenco and cooking classes and demonstrations to the menu, as well as wine tastings.
While other area restaurants have struggled during the recession, La Boca has grown by 10 percent each of the last two years, general manager Michael Smith said.
Caruso is quick to predict the end of the traditional meat-and-potatoes entree-to-dessert meal.
“I never thought it was a trend,” he said. “I thought it was a revolution.”