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Cuisine a blend of South America and the Middle East

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A tray of various flavors of empanadas at Cafecito in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

I had popped into Cafecito, the eclectic Argentinian café that opened last fall in the Trailhead Compound of the Railyard’s Baca District, just once before the COVID-19 shutdown. Even then, the location – in the sunny, industrial-chic space that once housed Opuntia – struck me as ideally socially distanced.

Tucked away on sleepy Shoofly Street at the end of the Acequia Trail, the two-story Trailhead Compound is the design creation of Serquis + Associates, Landscape Architects – also known as Cafecito’s owners, Solange Serquis and her husband, Andres Paglayan. The greenhouse-like restaurant facing the street is the building’s crown jewel and, under the direction of Serquis and Paglayan, its South America-meets-Middle East menu fills a void in Santa Fe’s coffee shop scene.

Cafecito’s offerings reflect the Buenos Aires origins of the couple, with all the diversity of that city, and the menu also features a few nods to their Armenian heritage. That means 12 different kinds of empanadas, including a gluten-free option. Since the simple hand pies freeze well, the café has added three different frozen samplers for take-out during the pandemic closure ($30-$50). There are also five salad options, including an Armenian Medze sampler (hummus, baba ganoush, tabbouleh, pita); six hefty sandwiches served with side salads; and plenty of thoughtful sides, such as rosemary French fries and truffle butter toast.

I didn’t know how lucky I was to be dining inside on that first visit, but I still relished the kind service and the Classic empanada sampler ($10). The plate included empanadas de carne (spiced ground beef and onion), verdura (spinach and ricotta) and jamón y queso (ham and cheese), accompanied by a salad of fresh mixed greens and sliced tomatoes. The small pies are formed from a delicate, sweet-salty dough, each one shaped differently: the ham and cheese empanada featured a mostly hollow cavity with delicately sliced ham piled in one corner; the verdura was dense with creamy ribbons of spinach and cheese; the carne reminded me of a slightly spicier, potato-free Michigan pasty. They’re served with a vinegary chimichurri sauce weighted with scallions, parsley and oregano, and dotted with chile flakes. I preferred the other sauce, a fiery, nutty chile paste that significantly amps the heat of whatever you dip into it. And I knew I’d be back for the house-made lemonade ($4 for 16 oz.), which has that hard-to-find perfect balance of sweet and tart, along with a lovely froth.

Several weeks later, I ordered from a slightly abbreviated menu via curbside pickup. With the exception of the slightly soggy, but still very tasty, herb-flecked rosemary French fries ($3.75), the food suffered not at all from being boxed and transported across town. The substantial square ciabatta slices of the Lomito Completo ($11.50), a traditional Argentinian steak sandwich, soaked up any grease left over from the amply flavored steak strips, which were embedded in a complex strata of romaine lettuce, sliced red onion and tomato, ham, provolone, mayonnaise and fried egg. A pretty roasted beet salad ($8) starred a fanned-out array of earthy yellow and red beets from Reunity Resources, mixed greens, feta and a mustard vinaigrette, though it was missing its advertised candied chile pecans.

The Taste of Argentina for two ($40), another COVID-born innovation, offered five empanadas (carne, verdura, jamón y queso, ricotta, and humita) with sauces; two dinner servings of flat-pounded, breaded Chicken Milanesas accompanied by mashed potatoes, haricots verts, and a large arugula and tomato salad. Dessert was a too-dry slice of lemon poppyseed cake and the much better alfajores, or powdered sugar dulce de leche sandwich cookies. Altogether, it’s a good value for two hefty meals, and the uniformly cooked, still-tender and delicately flavored chicken was a standout.

Like many restaurants during this uncertain era, Cafecito is still retooling its menu, figuring out what works best for takeout – as well as how to round out certain niches in this rapidly changing dining landscape. Its three newest empanadas are fantastic: a warming Santa Fe (chicken and green chile, $4.20), Tango (small beef strips, tomato sofrito, onion, $4.20) and Vegan (black bean and mashed sweet potato, $3.50). I’m excited to try the Lehmeyun, a larger Middle Eastern-via-South America spiced ground beef variety ($6). And at some point, I’ll be back for a proper sit-down iced yerba mate ($4) or dulce de leche latte ($4.75) on the pleasant gravel patio.

Cafecito adds to every order a helpful guide to identifying empanada flavors by shape, as well as instructions for baking the frozen pies at home, if you go that route. It’s the kind of customer-friendly, at-home dining innovation that many cafés have pivoted to during the pandemic. I look forward to seeing this kind of sweet service last much longer than the shutdown.

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