Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Where’s the best place to get lamb bucatini in Santa Fe? How about a Guatemalan breakfast, or a poke bowl, or lengua tacos? What about golden, cornmeal-crusted catfish, or a strawberry paleta drenched in white chocolate and studded with Fruity Pebbles?
These days, St. Michael’s Drive is the exciting new center of the gourmet action in town. The commercial corridor of seemingly bland strip malls between Cerrillos Road and Old Pecos Trail has, over the course of the past year or so, exploded into the most favorable foodie destination in Santa Fe. With lower rents than those offered by downtown landlords, St. Michael’s is a haven for first-time and mom-and-pop restaurateurs. Block by block, they’re offering a more exciting array of dining options than any other neighborhood in the city.
In 2014, Loyal Hound paved the way for its successors by settling into a cozy corner of the Plaza del Sol shopping center and offering up a creative, well-executed menu of elevated pub food, along with a robust beer and wine list. Sagche’s Coffee House, opened around the corner by brothers Erwin and Walfre Sagche in 2018, followed suit, drawing a loyal following with its single-origin Guatemalan, Colombian and Mexican beans. There’s also a lineup of tasty New Mexican classics and Guatemalan specials (try the pepián, a chicken-tomatillo stew with pumpkin seeds).
By 2019, after Santa Fe Bite was reincarnated in the former Tecolote space over at St. Michael’s Village West – and began serving Belgian Liège waffles alongside what many consider to be the finest green-chile cheeseburgers in the land – it was clear a revolution was taking place on St. Michael’s Drive.
Last summer, James Anthony Moore, a 14-year veteran chef of Asian fusion, opened Anthony’s Grill in St. Michael’s Village West. Word of mouth about his straightforward build-your-own stir fry operation (and killer catfish and hush puppies) spread fast. By fall, the restaurant had become a bona fide pandemic hit.
This winter, Agapao Coffee joined the party, moving into the drive-through kiosk in the same parking lot and quickly becoming a must-stop for St. Michael’s commuters. Santa Fe was crying out for more independently owned coffee drive-throughs – have you seen the regular line at Ohori’s on Pen Road?
Strip-mall dining is a pretty Los Angeles thing, so it makes sense that perhaps the most LA restaurant in town has colonized the Food King shopping center. Earlier this year, Liu Liu Liu restaurateurs, and California transplants Cameron Markham and Elizabeth Blankstein decided to invest their wedding money in a restaurant instead of having a pandemic wedding. Eager to spend their budget on quality ingredients rather than a steep rent, they say their location perfectly suits them. It might be a bit jarring to be forking up exquisite mouthfuls of Pernod-scented swordfish next to a barber shop, but it’s all in the delicious dissonance of the new St. Michael’s Drive.
Yes, there are food trucks, too. The Sanchez Tacos truck, parked next to Liquid Company Package Liquors, and El Pilar, on the corner of St. Michael’s and Cerrillos, are recent transplants. Both offer solid taco plates and Mexican staples (try the fiery red sauce from Sanchez). After your food truck feast, you might venture across to College Plaza South, where the rapidly growing ice-cream chain Paleta Bar opened an outpost in February.
I recently indulged in a dark chocolate-dipped, creamy coconut bar that was expertly crusted with chopped pistachios. I was also wowed by the efficient assembly line and array of not-too-sweet aguas frescas.
The newest kid on the St. Michael’s scene is Ocean Maung, a native of Burma who worked as manager of Asian foods at Whole Foods for more than a decade before going out on his own. His sushi trays are available at Chomp Food Hall, Buffalo Thunder Casino, and markets in Pojoaque and Eldorado. But, a few weeks ago, he also opened Golden Land Café. Nestled into Plaza del Sol, the bright yellow space offers a sorely needed grab-and-go array of delights that include righteous pork buns, dumplings, egg rolls and sushi. The menu spans noodle and teriyaki bowls, sukiyaki hot pot ramen and poke bowls (“I am the poke master,” Maung told me proudly). I loved his shrimp and basil soup with rice noodles, Napa cabbage, straw mushrooms and bok choy in a rich, savory broth, served with sriracha.
Miraculously, among all the new faces and flavors, there are still plenty of empty storefronts along St. Michael’s Drive. With this wealth of choice, it makes sense to leave downtown to the tourists this summer – and keep an eye on those spaces. You never know what the next strip-mall sensation might be.