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Diners compliment newest tenant

SANTA FE, N.M. — The space now occupied by Pecos Trail Cafe has housed so many restaurants that, with the exception of the long-tenured Peppers, I can’t recall them all. The restaurant adjoins a motel. Now, hotel restaurants, especially in Santa Fe, can be wonderful: La Fonda’s La Plazuela, Hotel Santa Fe’s Amaya, the Eldorado’s Old House, Tia’s Cocina at Hotel Chimayo, Luminaria at the Inn at Loretto. Or, they can be totally unremarkable except for their convenience.

However the current tenant here, Pecos Trail Cafe, seems to have settled in nicely. Under the good-humored leadership of Jorge Antuna , the cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week. Parking is easy and, when the weather allows, the staff will begin serving on the sunset deck. I’m partial to mom-and-pop places like this.

The menu features what you’d expect from an establishment with “New Mexican cuisine” on the sign out front. Appetizers include nachos, chips with salsa, chile con queso or guacamole. My friend and I tried something we’d never seen as an appetizer, Frito pie ($7). My last Frito pie — eaten at some outdoor event — arrived with the Frito bag (the individual serving size) as the bowl. This version however, was as elegant as a Frito pie can be. It arrived on a large white plate, with the smallest, crispest variety of Fritos smothered beneath a generous helping of fresh pinto beans, ground beef and red chile, then covered with a garnish of fresh lettuce and tomato. Does eating lettuce make Fritos good for you? I didn’t even miss the shredded cheese and the raw onion that often come with this dish. I’m sure if I’d asked, the staff would have brought me some in a heartbeat. My friend and I gave this a big thumbs up and had to stop ourselves from eating every last bite. After all, it was supposed to be an appetizer.

Pecos Trail Cafe
WHERE: 2239 Old Pecos Trail, Santa Fe, 505-982-9444
HOURS: Monday-Saturday,11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Sundays 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
FOOD: Mostly New Mexican. Beer and wine.
SERVICE: Polite and attentive.

In addition to the standard menu, with options ranging from green chile cheeseburgers to menudo, the restaurant offers daily specials, some of which you can request any day of the week. Since I’d only eaten here once before, I ordered one, an expanded combination plate, and received a delicious survey of New Mexican food. I loved the chalupa, a corn tortilla fried into a cup and filled with goodies. What a nice change from the all-pervasive taco. The chalupa not only offered variety, it was tasty, full of hot, gently seasoned ground beef and topped with fresh garnish. The pork tamale was meaty with the right proportion of meat to masa. The chile relleno, again mild, was as much cheese and chile as breading and topped with chopped green chile rather than a heavy sauce. The cheese enchilada provided a great platform to spotlight the cafe’s good red chile sauce.

My buddy ordered the rib eye, a 10-ounce steak served with a chile relleno. I was surprised at how good this beef was. At $14, it was the priciest option on the menu, but worth it. The nicely marbled meat, complete with grill marks, was tender and arrived on the rare side of “medium rare,” which was fine with us, but hard to do on a thin slice of meat. Like the combination plate, the steak came with pinto beans and rice as, well as a sopaipilla. The beans and rice were nothing special, but the sopaipillas are good here, light, hot, satisfying.

As we enjoyed our meal, I noticed something I’ve rarely encountered in my years as a restaurant reviewer: unsolicited compliments about the food from the tables surrounding us. Perhaps it was because of the charm of the owner who was serving as host and waiter as he checked with tables. I heard praise for the red chile and the fresh coffee. The couple across from my friend and me complimented us on our desserts.

They were good. The fried vanilla ice cream came in a flour tortilla fried into an edible bowl. Bits of crisp tortilla dusted with cinnamon and sugar coated the ice cream and gave it some crunch. It was pretty. But the flan gets my vote. Not too rich, but pleasantly dense in texture, the custard itself was barely sweet. Most of the sugar seemed to be in the lovely caramel sauce. The owner confided that the flan is his own family recipe. Bravo.

As the name implies, the restaurant sits just off the Old Pecos Trail a bit north of I-25 and a few miles toward Santa Fe from the ever-popular Harry’s Road House. The restaurant has plenty of parking out front. .