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The Plaza Cafe: Still an American diner like no other

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Plaza Cafe is authentic in ways that are not easy to find. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

The Plaza is the omphalos of La Villa Real, even now and still. The iconic Palace of the Governor’s and portal peopled by Native American artisans; the odd, controversial, re-chiseled obelisk monument; the looming bandstand put to great use all summer long beginning about now. There’s no other place like it in North America.

The people and animal-watching is pretty good, too, especially now, a very funky version of the Piazza Navona in Rome. Buskers, babies, dogs and turistas, startling groups of homeless, an Indian drumming and chanting, a willowy young lady playing violin.

As the Plaza is the heart of Santa Fe, the omphalos of the Plaza must be the venerable Plaza Cafe. (And omphalos, originally an Ancient Greek word for the navel of the world, is a perfectly appropriate word in this case).

This classic American diner, at the southwest corner since 1905, must surely be Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant; and when it was purchased by a Greek immigrant, Dan Razatos, in 1947, he and his wife, a local girl named Beneranda, and their six children retained the traditional dishes, cooking methods and flavor combinations of New Mexico and added some recipes from Greece for good measure.

Which is why the Plaza Cafe must be the only diner in the world where you can order everything from blue corn green chile carne asada enchiladas with a basket of the cafe’s famous fluffy sopaipillas, to chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes, or gyro with a Greek salad on the side.

I’ve been loving the Plaza Cafe since I first stepped into this American diner unlike any other, 40 some years ago – black-and-white mosaic floor tile, stamped-tin ceiling, counter and stools, red leather booths.

The other day, I lunched with two friends, one of whom has been patronizing the cafe since his high school days in the 1950s, and the other only since the ’60s. Ha ha. So, among us, we’d been enjoying the cafe for a combined total of almost 150 years, older than the cafe itself.

And we find it as it ever was, bustling, welcoming, familiar as the waitress we met in 1979, and still working, and as comfortable as the booth we nestle into.

Madame orders what she always does, Cashew Mole Enchiladas ($15.75), a trio of chicken enchiladas in savory, musky, tangy and sweet classic mole sauce, and sour cream, served with pinto beans and Spanish rice. Let’s put it this way; you will find none better from Alamogordo to Alamosa. Likewise, the superb Enchiladas ($13.95) rolled yellow corn (or blue corn) tortillas filled – and I mean FILLED – with chicken (calabacitas, carnitas or carne asada offered, as well) also served with rice and pinto beans and a basket of the remarkable sopaipillas. A lunch that will possibly preclude the need for dinner later, and what a value.

The latter-day high school patron showed some real home-court smarts and experience, and ordered the hit of the repast – Huevos Divorciados ($12.50), two eggs prepared to order on corn tortilla, one egg topped with an earthy, dark chipotle and the other with a spicy, bright tomatillo salsa, served with guacamole, sour cream, pinto beans, hash browns and a flour tortilla. There is no need for a divorce here! The combination is one that reminds us that opposites attract and vive la différence is the order of the day. Absolutely perfect combination of flavors and tastes and subtly so. Definitely my order the next time I stop in.

In a town filled with history and chronic attempts to rewrite it, the authentic is not always that easy to find.

All those balcony bars may summon you, but for over a century, the only stop on the Plaza remains the Plaza Cafe.

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