SANTA FE, N.M. — Mexican cuisine satisfies; servers care about your experience
When I’m getting ready to write a restaurant review, I ask myself these questions:
1. Considering the myriad of choices Santa Fe’s world of eating offers, would I come back?
2. Would I recommend this establishment to my friends?
When it comes to La Cocina Doña Clara, a locally-owned cafe specializing in simple Mexican food out on Airport Road, I’d answer yes to both questions.
Convenient if you live on the south side of town, La Cocina de Doña Clara is one of those restaurants I’ve driven past for years, usually thinking I should stop and see what it was about. But the time of day was wrong, or I wasn’t hungry, or I had to be somewhere else without the minutes to stop for a meal. Because I’d eaten at their location in Santa Fe Village – and judging from the number of cars parked outside —— I figured Doña Clara would be a safe bet.
Then, last week, I finished a meeting in the neighborhood around noon. Doña Clara was open.
A colleague and I were greeted and seated, offered drinks and menus. We shared the restaurant with several groups of men speaking Spanish and a table of well-dressed young women, enjoying both lunch and conversation and a bit of attention from fellow diners. Mexican music played in the background and the aromas of lunch wafted in from the kitchen.
My companion and I started with a selection of three salsas from the salsa bar —— a picante red sauce, a gentle tomatillo and a creamy avocado dip. Each was excellent. The bar also includes chopped onions and fresh lime wedges, and comes complimentary with meals or for a small fee as a stand-alone snack . The waiter brought a basket of freshly made corn chips, still warm, slightly chewy and 100 percent fresh and delicious. Be careful. These treats are addictive. Beverages to go with the chips, in addition to standard tea and sodas, include agua frescas and liquados, Mexican-style juice drinks. You can also order beer or wine.
I decided on the day’s special, a three-item combination plate served with rice, beans and a house-made flour tortilla presented in a warmer. I loved Doña Clara’s large, soft tortilla with that right-off-the-grill flavor. How easy it would be to buy tortillas, and how much better these fresh ones are. Everything on the combination plate was fresh, too, and it arrived hot from the kitchen. My meal included two chicken flautas served with good guacamole and plenty of sour cream. I liked the chile relleno too, a large, mild, thin-skinned pepper filled with white cheese that melted in the cooking. The pepper had been coated with a thin batter that picked up a little more grease than absolutely necessary for the flavor. The plate also included beef in a red mole sauce. The sauce was thick and surprisingly spicy. The small pieces of beef hidden in the sauce were tender but the strong chile seasoning overwhelmed the more subtle flavors. The rice, with a few yellow corn kernels mixed in, was good, and so were the refried beans. The beans had a terra cotta color rather than the adobe hue I’m used to in the New Mexican version of this dish.
My partner had the beef enchiladas with the same good beans and rice. Served flat, the enchilada had plenty of chewy ground beef beneath a pleasant, mild green sauce, finished with a generous handful of white cheese on the top only. Either the cheese was not sprinkled on the two interior layers or the kitchen applied it with such a gentle touch that we couldn’t taste it. Since I like cheese, more would have been appreciated.
The lunch and dinner menus feature chicken or beef fajitas, several shrimp dishes, tortas, or Mexican-style sandwiches, menudo and, as a special on weekends, birria —— also known as cabrito or roasted goat. If you come for breakfast, choices include breakfast burritos, chilaquiles and huevos rancheros. We had a choice of house-made tres leches cake or the restaurant’s own flan among the offerings for dessert, and our charming waiter recommended the cake, which he said the owner makes herself at home. Unfortunately, we’d had too much fun sampling the salsas to have room for sweets.
Our lunch for two, with two large drinks, was about $28 with tax before the tip.
The service made our experience more pleasant and memorable. Our waiter had a wonderful smile and treated us like honored visitors. He answered every question, checked with us frequently for beverage refills and to make sure all was well. He gave us the impression that our satisfaction with the meal mattered. It was the sort of service you’d expect in a restaurant with white tablecloths and French wine by the glass, not a simple establishment on Airport Road.
Dona Clara operates a second location with a different menu at 227 Don Gaspar Ave #4 in Santa Fe village. .