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Meet Santa Fe’s new specialty grocers

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Ordinarily, I’d think twice about paying $5 for a dozen eggs – even the organic, orange-yolked variety you get from backyard chickens. But the pandemic seems to have done something to the way I shop for food. And, in Santa Fe at least, I’m not alone.

The Deli at Sassella is located on Mckenzie Street in downtown Santa Fe behind the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

I considered this shift in grocery shopping as I drove to a former co-worker’s house this week to pick up a carton that included five mint-green Araucana eggs. (I grew up raising chickens and the pastel orbs were always my favorite.) I thought about my fridge, which was freshly stocked with salami and cheese from the Deli at Sassella, as well as a half-quart of soup, and cinnamon rolls I’d scored from Open Kitchen’s downtown storefront.

I had just visited Beck & Bulow, the new meat purveyor on Cerrillos Road, to peruse a selection that ranged from ground elk to bison tenderloins to wild-caught Alaskan salmon. After the egg handoff, I planned a trip to CHOMP Food Hall to check out the array of specialty provisions there, along with its full bar and restaurant stalls.

As my Depression-survivor grandpa would say, Santa Fe cooks are “living high on the hog” with a freshman class of specialty grocers. Shopping at the new gourmet venues is a far cry from standing in line outside Market Street or Trader Joe’s – but, like the lines, these stores are all products of COVID-19. Their success depends on the flavors they’ve brought us, whether local or imported, and the territory they’ve carved out proves that townies are hungry for more diverse food retail experiences.

“People are cooking more and more at home,” says Sassella sous chef and deli manager Tony Smith. “It’s great to be able to re-create some cool thing you saw on the Food Network or Instagram with stuff from our store. It’s a lot of the specialty stuff you can’t find in your average grocery store.”

Deli at Sassella’s cottage on Mckenzie Street not only boasts the best muffalettas and meatball subs you can find in town, but also the cozy storefront is home to a dizzying lineup of imported antipasti, pasta, olive oils, vinegars and even Italian ketchup. At the deli counter, I sampled a few tastes of charcuterie, sliced thin by Smith, before settling on 4 ounces of salame picante ($7.28) and 5 of coppa ham ($12.45). I also grabbed a bag of orecchiette pasta from Puglia ($7.95) and a jar of black chili from Urfa, Turkey ($9.95). Smith says customers who hail from Philadelphia and New York, accustomed to Italian delis jam-packed with imported delicacies, are extra stoked to find the Deli at Sassella in their own backyard.

Like the Italian deli, Beck & Bulow’s new store on Cerrillos Road is a return to an old-school, pre-World War II shopping model, where you get your meat from a stand-alone butcher shop as opposed to the meat section of the supermarket. Owners Tony Beck and J.P. Bulow say their business – featuring beef, lamb, pork and poultry from small organic producers, as well as wild-caught seafood and game, such as bison, elk and boar – reflects the trend, especially since COVID, of consumers shifting their loyalties to clean, non-factory-farmed meat without hormones, additives or preservatives.

“I had a 95-year-old woman who was in here buying 40 dollars worth of buffalo short ribs,” says Bulow, “and she said, ‘This buffalo tastes like what beef used to taste like in the 1950s.’ ”

After picking up a pound of free-range ground elk for $14.99, I wondered if new customers were balking at Beck & Bulow’s prices. Bulow pointed out, “The big meatpackers kill 30,000 to 50,000 heads of cattle a day. We’re a totally different beast here. I’m not selling ground beef for two dollars that’s filled with hormones. Everyone wants grass-fed and local, but it’s a lot more expensive to raise.”

He compared the difference to a $5 single-origin espresso drink versus a cup of coffee from McDonald’s.

I could taste the difference in rich, flavorful and just fatty enough Beck & Bulow green chile pork sausage ($11.99/lb.) that I fried up later to top some tagliatelle from Quattro Mani Pasta ($16). I’d bought the pasta at Open Kitchen’s new “open pantry” in Santa Fe Village on Don Gaspar, where chef-owner Hue-Chan Karels has set up a space for private dining appointments, cooking classes and a thriving weekly food delivery business.

Between 2 and 6 p.m. on Monday afternoons, Karels sets out a rotating cast of items for sale that include pastas and sauces from Quattro Mani, along with a choice of two soups, focaccia and other baked nibbles. There are also 12-ounce jars of handmade syrups (lemongrass, hibiscus, ginger, $15) to jazz up homemade shrubs or cocktails, and quick-pickled carrots and daikon radishes ($15). I grabbed a four-pack of brioche cinnamon rolls ($13) that required a quick heat at home, accompanied by a divine orange-flavored cream cheese frosting, and a $16/oz Massaman curried chicken soup with rice noodles ($13). The noodles were lovingly packed separately with basil and chili garnishes, and I made two meals of the heady soup.

Vegetarian spring rolls from Nath’s are some of the tasty appetizers available at CHOMP. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

Soup is a prominent feature of the CHOMP Food Hall at the Luna Center on Cerrillos Road. There, a growing lineup of food vendors includes Yes, Soup for You!, a positive spin on Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi that offers four soups a week. Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine makes a mean, sweet-and-spicy chicken Tom Yum soup ($11 for 9 ounces) redolent with cilantro and chiles, as well as tasty gluten-free and vegan turmeric sweet potato noodles with broccoli, spinach, carrots, scallions and crimini mushrooms ($15). You can pile on the spice with an ancho-chile Bloody Mary with a pilsner back ($9) from the wine-centric Bottega del Vino bar while you watch the comings and goings of people checking out the Italian imports at the Artisan’s Bottega, or opening the fridges to inspect $25 ready-made charcuterie plates from cheese master Lauren Stutzman’s Picnic NM. CHOMP is still a work in progress, getting ready to provide outlets for Jambo Café and Chang’s Dumpling House in the weeks to come. But, even in its fledgling phase, Santa Fe’s first food hall has significantly boosted both the dine-in and dry goods options in the Railyard area.

Back to those eggs. Being the kind of person who likes to cook one egg a day, I’m having mornings where I sigh out loud during breakfast, grateful I spent a dollar or so more on a home-cooked meal I can truly cherish. One byproduct of the COVID era seems to be a newfound appreciation for those rare moments of luxury. Times being what they are, it’s important to afford ourselves that kind of pleasure.

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