Sometimes, despite — or in lieu of — the best-laid plans of urbanists, big developers and designs created in City Hall, good things can happen to improve or rejuvenate neighborhoods more organically.
As reported in last Sunday’s Journal North by Molly Boyle, local food writer par excellence, St. Michael’s Drive in Midcity Santa Fe has become something of a dining hotspot.
Yes, that St. Mike’s — the busy thoroughfare dominated by car dealerships, bank branch offices, strip malls and a big ol’ empty former Kmart store.
City officials have been talking for years about somehow converting St. Mike’s into an attractive, walkable boulevard with a more elegant urban streetscape, buildings that combine streetside small retail with upstairs living, more and better landscaping, apartments and possibly fewer traffic lanes.
Nothing has really happened toward achieving any of those goals, which in the recent past were put forth under the project branding name ReMike. But restaurateurs have jumped in where others may fear to tread.
It might have been the African/Caribbean restaurant Jambo Café that started the trend. Jambo technically isn’t on St. Mike’s, but it’s in a big shopping center at the busy St. Mike’s/Cerrillos Road intersection.
In a city where catering to the tourists who swarm downtown and affluent northsiders has been key for many eateries, Jambo became a smashing success despite its Midcity location. It obviously attracts people from all over Santa Fe — and tourists, too, after word of its great food got out to the greater world. The lesson learned — build it (a great place to eat at reasonable prices) and they will come.
Following a trend from such big cities as Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Nevada, strip malls with much cheaper rents and more parking than locations in more fashionable parts of town have subsequently come to house a plethora of tasty, varied and interesting dining options along the St. Mike’s corridor, from Cerrillos to St. Francis.
“With lower rents than those offered by downtown landlords, St. Michael’s is a haven for first-time and mom-and-pop restaurateurs,” Boyle wrote. “Block by block, they’re offering a more exciting array of dining options than any other neighborhood in the city.”
Just some of the choices include Loyal Hound, with its “elevated” pub food; Sagche’s Coffee House, combining New Mexico and Guatemalan classics with its single-origin Guatemalan, Colombian and Mexican coffee; the venerable Santa Fe Bite, which moved to St. Mike’s from downtown and now offers Belgian Liége waffles in addition its world-renowned green chile cheeseburgers; Mampuku Ramen (try the curry ramen with brisket); Anthony’s Grill in St. Michael’s Village West, a pandemic-era hit with build-your-own stir fry and great corn-meal crusted catfish; the upscale Taiwanese cuisine of Liu Liu Liu, hidden next to a barber shop; and the new Golden Land Café, near the Smith’s supermarket in Plaza del Sol (Boyle loved the “shrimp and basil soup with rice noodles, Napa cabbage, straw mushrooms and bok choy in a rich, savory broth, served with sriracha”).
Not to be forgotten on the St. Mike’s strip are such old standbys as Chow’s Asian Bistro, Felipe’s Tacos, Pizza Espiritu and Los Potrillos, the outstanding Mexican restaurant.
So far, all of this deliciousness has been brought to the neighborhood with no signs of gentrification, unless good food at mostly very reasonable prices counts as gentrification. In any case, there soon should be plenty of new dining customers in the neighborhood as a couple of old office buildings at St. Mike’s and Pacheco Street are being renovated to provide workspace for an estimated 400 Los Alamos National Laboratory employees.
Developers with big ideas may soon follow the scent of all this good food, although it remains hard to see how all those car dealerships and convenience stores can ever be chased off or converted to fit into a European-style boulevard or a genuine hipster mecca, even if we really wanted that to occur. The deserted Kmart does offer something of a blank slate for planners and builders, so stay tuned.
Restaurants are a sign of cultural vibrancy, and make neighborhoods more enjoyable and lively. The recent wave of new eateries in Midcity bodes well for the area, regardless of what the city eventually decides to do with the empty, city-owned campus that anchors one end of the St. Mike’s corridor.
For now, just enjoy what’s on the menu in St. Mike’s burgeoning restaurant scene, and hope it gets bigger and better.