Liu Liu Liu is an upscale restaurant like you’ve never seen before.
You squint at the map, then into the blinding sun of 7 p.m. Before you: the illustrious Food King on St. Michael’s Drive. Next to it, a forlorn-looking, empty Kmart. According to the quivering dot on your phone, you have arrived at your destination.
Could this restaurant be … inside the abandoned Kmart? Your mind runs wild. Your dinner date pulls up next to you and gestures at you from inside her VW. She seems to have figured it out.
Not so fast. First, you must both mistakenly enter a driver’s education school – midsession – before worming your way back out and around to a patio table outside the dark, anonymous storefront of the new restaurant Liu Liu Liu. Once you’re seated, the cryptic details you heard on the restaurant’s voicemail begin to make sense. You are indeed at “the door beside the barber shop,” sitting on an artificial turf-covered square of sidewalk behind a cartoonish black picket fence. You’re at “an upscale restaurant where the music plays loud and the experience will be far from the norm.”
It is an understatement. You might just be in for the most unusual dining experience Santa Fe has to offer. With Liu Liu Liu’s impeccably executed plates of Taiwanese-global haute cuisine, you’re about to choose your own adventure.
Leave it to a couple of restaurateurs from Los Angeles to keep Santa Fe weird – or, rather, to single-handedly transform the city’s rather staid white-tablecloth landscape into a decidedly more interesting one. Owner-operators Cameron Markham and Elizabeth Blankstein met while developing fine dining ventures in Southern California; they’ve since opened five restaurants together. Liu Liu Liu is their first Santa Fe child, a small-plate-focused, family-style endeavor born of their COVID-postponed wedding, as well as a desire to shake things up in the City Different. (Albuquerque-raised Markham cut his teeth in Santa Fe in the hospitality industry after high school.)
Blankstein cooks in the 10-table storefront’s open kitchen, in an atmosphere best described as estate-sale gothic, with a loud soundtrack that veers from Vivaldi to the Violent Femmes. Markham hosts and waits tables, with the help of server Edgar Meija. Markham also performs the unusual duty of water sommelier, a title he earned from studying under expert Martin Riese, a man whom the Eater website called “America’s only water sommelier” in 2015.
Markham will happily rattle on about the mineral content of any of the long list of sparkling and still waters on the menu. Before you know it, you’re quaffing a $20 bottle of Vichy Catalan, a heady Spanish blend with a high total dissolved solids content that Markham says is available in only one other American locale. You might pair it with a selection from the global menu of sodas and juices, such as an apple soda from Taiwan ($4) or a carbonated yerba mate blend made in Miami ($4). The waters are presented and served in Champagne coupes around about the time you realize that Liu Liu Liu is making the best argument for the return of sit-down dining since the onset of the pandemic.
The owners’ global fusion inspirations are best tasted in an appetizer of chicken liver mousse ($16) threaded with an apple brandy gelée, paired with a swath of taro honey beneath a selection of pillowy mini-sopaipillas dusted with red chile. There’s also the astonishing artichoke ($16), a long-stemmed specimen braised in an aromatic five-spiced Taiwanese lu wei broth with daikon radishes and carrots, served with a tangy white garlic aioli.
Tamer selections might be the mellow marinated cucumbers, bathed in sesame oil, and served with yellow squash and garlic oil ($11), or even the sweet-and-salty black hummus, blended with black sesame and served with crudité ($12). Blankstein says the thick-cut noodle and beef soup ($26) comes from a Taiwanese family recipe; an entrée of ground pork served over purple forbidden rice with pickled mustard greens ($22) bears out additional East Asian flourishes.
The swordfish ($38) is spritzed with absinthe, served over a mash of chayote squash, married with an earthy smear of beet purée, sprinkled with edible lily flowers, then presented at the table with a pour-over Pernod velouté. It’s a delicately flavored, subtly nuanced dish, with velvety notes that roam from sweet fennel to savory soil. The tofu with green Sichuan peppercorns, harissa and haricots verts ($20) may seem a bit ho-hum in comparison, until you taste the peppers tingling the tofu in your mouth – and then take a soft sip of the Austrian medium-minerality Liquid Death water ($8).
At this point, your meal may get even weirder – for instance, driver’s ed class lets out next door, a lost white dog wanders nearby, and the sun glows red across the parking lot over the mountains. “Where are we?” I happily ask my companion. But any strange happenings afoot are unmatched by the fun of popcorn-fried chicken ($38), a Taiwanese street food staple that Blankstein upgrades with fried basil, white pepper and Périgord black truffles generously shaved over the dish before you. Did I mention it’s served in a vessel closely resembling a fishbowl?
Despite the incongruity of the restaurant’s surroundings, there’s a sweet harmony present in nearly every dish at Liu Liu Liu. Over two visits, I listened to excited dinner guests – locals and tourists alike – praise the restaurant’s singular point of view, its raucous setting and adventurous spirit. Markham says he and Blankstein (both of whom have traditional sommelier training) are preparing to debut a beer and wine menu, fusing his knowledge of New World wines with her Old World expertise. True to Liu Liu Liu form, he says, “You’re going to find items on that list you can’t get anywhere else.”