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Santa Fe’s gourmet youthquake: Three businesses to savor

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A few years ago, a common saying around town went something like this: “Santa Fe eats its young.”

Squeezed by an impossible housing market, a lack of viable jobs and nightlife, and a city that often felt dominated by retirees, much of the under-40 crowd seemed to move to Santa Fe and leave shortly thereafter – or, if they were born and raised here, leave to seek greener pastures out of state.

But if the restaurant industry is any indication of a demographic shift, a new set of self-taught foodsters, all in their 30s, is changing the local landscape. They’re rolling with the COVID-19 punches, sourcing ingredients as close to home as possible, and innovating how we order and eat. Here are three to watch – and support.

Tender Fire Kitchen: This four-month-old sourdough pizza pop-up at El Rey Court stems from owner-operator Ben Crosky’s desire to do something new with his life. The result? No big deal, just the best pizza in Santa Fe.

The ingredients that go into Tender Fire Kitchen’s pizza crust are deliciously outrageous. (Molly Boyle/For Journal North)

In March, Crosky drove to Oregon to bring back a secondhand, wood-fired pizza oven covered in dreamy blue mosaic tiles. The portable oven is as artful as the pies it produces on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings in the El Rey parking lot. Crosky, who has been making sourdough for less than a year, crafts a tangy, smoky crust that expertly walks a tightrope between elasticity and crunch. His ingredients are impeccable: stone-ground wheat and sausage from Gosar Ranch, herbs and veggies from Paradox Farm and Annie’s Herbs, and finishing drizzles of chile-infused honey or sprinkles of Maldon salt.

With the first bite of Tender Fire’s classic margherita ($15), I was transported to the five years I spent in Brooklyn. Back then, I’d ride my bike to Di Fara Pizza to watch famed pizzaiolo Domenico DeMarco meticulously customize pies, then load them into an ancient wood-burning oven. Each one of Tender Fire’s 9-inch pizzas takes less than 90 seconds to bake, but they are days in the making. Customers order and pay online several days in advance – a new weekly menu goes up on Tuesdays and tends to sell out by Wednesday. In the meantime, Crosky ferments the sourdough.

Back to the margherita: the San Marzano tomato sauce has a zingy flavor as distinctive as the dough it’s layered over. It’s blanketed in creamy mozzarella, a touch of pecorino and basil leaves. A soppressata pizza ($17) is dotted with zesty salami rounds that are caramelized by high heat, then filled with dollops of hot honey and sprinkled with flaky salt.

A white nettle pizza ($17) spotlights the zip of those lacy greens, which are soaked in cream and joined by subtle green garlic, red pepper flakes, and a milky lake of fontina and mozzarella. For dessert, try the Sweetie Pie ($18), a regular pepperoni pizza candied up with dates and mascarpone.

Every pie seems to achieve a sublime balance of sweet and salty. East Coasters will find this pizza evocative, but the menu has a distinctly Santa Fe style in its ingredients and sensibility. Gluten-free and vegan options are also available.

And should you be seeking a bit of atmosphere in these takeout-heavy times, the grassy expanse of socially distanced picnic tables at El Rey can feel mighty romantic in the evenings. It’s accented by soft music, strings of white lights and a steady stream of people swooning over their pizza.

Coquette: “A cake in a Mason jar?” my dad asked skeptically. I served him a mound of Caitlin Olsen’s chocolate cake Cockaigne with buttercream frosting and Heidi’s Farm raspberries ($15 for a jar that served three) and he shut up pretty quick.

Olsen pioneered Coquette, her cake-in-a-jar bakery, on the beaches of Montauk last year. The self-taught baker figured people picnicking on the beach needed a no-mess dessert. Last March, she moved back to Santa Fe and started right up in a commercial kitchen. Customers order nine different cakes for free delivery or pickup, online or by phone. Olsen layers them right into the jar, then decorates them with fanciful gauze, glitter and ribbon.

Coquette used locally sourced ingredients in its Cake in a Mason jar. (Molly Boyle/For Journal North)

She says her cakes are big with the dinner party crowd – who doesn’t relish the “Cake in a Mason jar?” reaction – but she also makes traditional cheesecakes and wedding cakes. I fell in love with her tres leches cake with coconut and fresh mango chunks ($15); the jar seemed the perfect vehicle to showcase its spongy, creamy stratum.

Olsen, too, is serious about sourcing locally. She uses Navajo Pride flour, Iconik coffee in her tiramisu and sabayon, and milk, yogurt and eggs from De Smet Dairy. And much like the homespun touch of the Mason jar, her ingredients make a difference: there is no cloying sugariness in her creations, just good, honest sweetness.

Bread Shop: Jacob Brenner’s bakery is the only one of these businesses that predates the pandemic – but not by much. The Santa Fe-born baker opened his Lena Street outpost at the end of January.

Like Tender Fire’s Crosky, Brenner began making sourdough bread as a hobby. But after a line-cook stint at Paloma, he stepped boldly into the void with Bread Shop. The response was immediate, with Brenner’s handcrafted and naturally leavened loaves and focaccia regularly selling out by early afternoon. Since the pandemic, Bread Shop does most of its sales via online pre-order, with many items gone several days in advance.

It’s no wonder: you can taste the bespoke in Brenner’s bread. The sourdough boule ($9) is Bread Shop’s cornerstone, a revelatory, dense-yet-light-yet crusty round with craggy holes that make ideal cradles for butter, jam, avocado or aioli.

Bread Shop on Lena Street specializes in handcrafted and naturally leavened loaves and focaccia. (Molly Boyle/For Journal North)

Brenner makes baguettes, too, as well as a sandwich loaf with oats and millet, and a three-seed rye bread with flax, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. But the bestseller seems to be focaccia, which comes in 4-by-6-inch moist, air-pocketed slices, either plain ($3.75), brushed with crushed tomatoes ($4.25), topped with apricots and honey ($2.75), or encrusted with green olives, chile oil and salt ($4.25).

Golden apricots are a perfect foil for the tangy bread, as are meaty, briny olives. But I had a recent moment of zen eating a plain slice of Bread Shop focaccia with a plate of spaghetti marinara made from garden tomatoes – savoring the bounty of summer right along with the bold confidence of youth.

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