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Sweet service: Santa Fe’s Cafecito offers carefully crafted Argentine delightes

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

I had popped into Cafecito, the eclectic Argentine 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 kinds of empanadas, including a gluten-free option. Because the simple hand pies freeze well, the café has added three frozen samplers for takeout 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 housemade lemonade ($4 for 16 ounces), 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 with 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.

Like many other 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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