An oft-repeated complaint of Santa Fe foodsters goes something like this: “There’s no good Asian restaurants in this city.”
There are a few familiar follow-ups to this not-so-bold statement. Someone might lament the 2016 closure of the beloved Mu Du Noodles, or the subsequent shuttering of Talin Market, with its popular weekly dumpling and ramen bar. Then, they might throw out a caveat, confessing that they are, however, stoked about the recently opened Mampuku Ramen.
But the common sentiment is one of judgmental disappointment, especially if that person moved to Santa Fe from a larger city. There is little recognition of the fact that Asia is a gigantic and diverse continent, and that no one goes around saying anything equally sweeping like, “There’s no good European food in this town.”
Let us open our hearts and minds, then, to two welcome recent developments: the Monday night Korean pop-up at Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery, and Tumbleroot’s new rest-of-week pan-Asian East Root food truck menu.
On a snow-globed February evening, former Izmi Sushi chef-owner Brent Jung was a comforting presence in Tumbleroot’s cavernous dance-hall space on Agua Fría. He was busy turning out steaming bowls of what might well be the most flavorful tongkotsu ramen ($10) around, augmented by a silky soft-boiled egg, seaweed flakes and scallions, and a deep, complex broth. We paid an extra $3 for beautifully cooked slices of braised chashu pork belly and fought over the dregs of the bowl.
In addition to a hefty $15 beef bulgogi plate of New York strip, rice and salad, the Monday Korean pop-up menu stars a variety of dumplings. The combo ($12) presents two each: we sampled chicken and tofu, kimchi and beef, and pork and shrimp. (A bright green vegetable dumpling is also on the menu.)
Our favorite was the shrimp, with its wrapper cradling savory pork and a juicy whole jumbo shrimp with the tail peeking out. Jung said it was inspired by a recent trip to Seoul, where he photographed a one-shrimp dumpling and sent it to his mother. She was busy re-creating it by the time he got home.
The beef-kimchi dumpling is fiery, while the chicken-tofu offers a milder, happy medium. Jung and his team, which includes his mom and brother, make all the fillings and wrappers from scratch, then steam and lightly pan-sear the dumplings for a bit of crispiness. Along with a side of crunchy-spicy red chile kimchi ($5), we relished Tumbleroot’s tart and gingery Moscow Mule ($9), featuring its own cane vodka and fresh-pressed grapefruit juice, and a pint of the house’s light, refreshing American lager ($4).
After Melissa Dominguez took the reins as executive chef last fall, she devised the East Root food truck menu as a complement to the venue’s pub fare. East Root items, which span the continent, are offered Tuesday through Saturday nights. (For winter, at least, the truck is simply parked in front and not an official walk-up destination; customers order off the menu inside.)
The East Root menu incorporates many fusion touches: veggie spring rolls with avocado and sweet chili sauce ($10), tempura cod and fried green beans ($12), teriyaki grass-fed beef sliders with wasabi aioli ($13), gluten-free and vegan pad thai ($13), and fried brown rice with broccoli, spinach and chicken or tofu ($12).
The pea-and-potato samosas ($8) have big curried flavor, even if the unwieldy potato chunks needed a finer dice; they’re served with a tongue-tingling chutney.
We loved the tandoori chicken wings ($13), three regular-size, expansive wings coated with a piquant, bright yellow sauce that bore the signature undertang of Frank’s RedHot sauce. The chicken was served with slices of lemon and confusingly large strips of raw white onion.
The $12 poke bowl’s sesame seed-sprinkled ahi tuna chunks may have been a bit mangled-looking, but the combo of nicely cooked brown rice, buttery avocado slices, pink sriracha mayo, and crunchy cucumber and carrot sticks melded harmoniously.
Tumbleroot’s regular pub menu, available Tuesdays through Saturdays, has its loyalists – two separate parties were overheard raving about the stuffed artichokes with goat cheese ($10), mint and lemon zest.
The elk sausage and pretzel plate ($13) far surpasses most local pub fare. Burnished, tender chunks of sausage are lined up with pillows of salted pretzel bites alongside stone-ground mustard, a pile of cornichons and a melted Gruyère sauce. The cheesesteak sandwich ($13) features a bold but creamy horseradish with gooey melted provolone, roasted red peppers and thin beef slices served with a cup of green chile au jus to soften the chewy ciabatta roll.
With its ample and spread-out seating, Tumbleroot might offer a more harmonious dining experience with table service. Currently, guests must order at one part of the bar, take a number, stand awkwardly to await their drinks, then find their way to a table. This can lead to logjams at the counter and a slower food arrival time – particularly on pop-up Mondays, when it’s reasonable to want to order a few dumplings, and then maybe a couple more.
But across the three menus, the food proves worth any extra wait time, bearing out the same from-scratch commitment and attention to detail that Tumbleroot has brought to its potables. The brewery-distillery is a group-friendly venue, with its vast parking lot, outdoor playground for families, busy concert calendar and array of communal seating. With that diverse clientele in mind, it makes sense for Tumbleroot to cater to as many different tastes as possible. They’re doing a great job.