As we begin the last day of 2021, my mind wanders to Santa Fe’s stalwart restaurants and the visionaries behind their longevity and unparalleled success. While Santa Fe has many restaurants with 20, 30 or more years of history, one stands out among the crowd as a culinary leader.
Long before local, seasonal and organic were en vogue, this was the bedrock on which owner and chef Katharine Kagel built Cafe Pasqual’s. Named for the patron saint of cooks and kitchens, after 42 years, Cafe Pasqual’s remains a highly-regarded institution where both tourists and locals venture for wildly creative and seriously consistent dishes.
For the 25 years I visited Santa Fe before moving here, Pasqual’s was our first stop. And, yes, we bought the requisite branded coffee mugs, bowls, calendar and cookbook. As locals, it’s still in our repertoire, especially when we have friends in town because Pasqual’s represents everything we love about Santa Fe.
Kagel’s commitment to buying local ingredients, pastured meats and sustainable fish is one of the reasons the food is so fresh and flavorful. Woven throughout the menu are influences of Mexico and New Mexico, which gives every plate myriad textures, colors and spices that make each dish unforgettable. For these reasons, Cafe Pasqual’s received a prestigious James Beard award in 1999 and they haven’t lost an iota of the passion that continues to fuel them and feed us.
Pasqual’s honors the reality that breakfast is the most important meal of the day by serving it from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., while lunch is served from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Its inherent popularity means you will likely wait for a table, so you can either stroll the nearby shops or chat with others who are patiently waiting outside. Dinner requires both a reservation and proof of vaccination and is served from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.
Located one block south of the Plaza in an adobe building built in 1905, your spirits lift the moment you enter the restaurant. Colorful papel picado and ristras wrapped in white holiday lights drape from the ceiling, vivid murals by Leovigildo Martinez dress the walls, hundred-year-old, hand-painted Mexican tiles adorn the dining room and music plays in the background to create a festive space that speaks to all of your senses and ignites a celebration.
Having eaten at Pasqual’s too many times to count, it’s possible to close your eyes, point anywhere on the menu and be happy. Each dish is carefully prepared, thoughtfully plated and exceeds your expectations. But do yourself a favor and start this culinary adventure with Amy’s Hippie Dippie Green Drink ($8). A bright and bold combination of kale, cilantro, parsley, ginger, lemon juice and apple juice will give you the energy and nutrition you need in one cold mug. Slightly spicy from the ginger and dark green from the kale and herbs, it’s so good you may be inspired to make this juicy concoction at home.
We also ordered a chai but, sadly, received a seriously sweet hot chocolate instead, though it was made with the almond milk we requested. When we inquired if this was in fact the chai, the waiter admitted he made a mistake and I was disappointed he did not offer to replace it. So we drank the hot chocolate.
I ordered and received the Durango Omelet ($19) and cleaned my plate. Big enough for two people or two meals, this was the only meal I ate and it was one of the best things I can remember eating in a long time. Three organic, fluffy eggs are stuffed with diced rosemary ham, sautéed cremini mushrooms, scallions, a touch of Monterrey jack cheese and sour cream with roasted tomatillo salsa. Though it is served with guacamole, I requested it on the side as I am not a fan of hot guac and they were happy to oblige.
For sides, I chose the seeded bread which is naturally gluten-free and reminded me of a recipe on my blog called Life-Changing Bread – but this was better. The enormous plate of food was accompanied by soft, oven-roasted sweet potatoes lightly tossed with red chile powder to give them the slightest hint of heat and a gorgeous burnt orange hue.
My husband ordered Pasqual’s Favorite ($18), with two eggs any style, a side of red chile mole, protein of choice and two pancakes with maple syrup. He went with the homemade sausage which was some of the best we have ever had. The ground pork is seasoned with a generous amount of fennel, along with herbs and red chile flakes. The spicy sausage plays well with the softly fried eggs and the two sweet but light whole wheat pancakes.
The breakfast menu is eclectic and ranges from Maga’s Golden Blintzes ($17) to Smoked Trout Hash ($18), two types of burritos for those who don’t eat anything but burritos for breakfast, Huevos Motuleños ($17) and Corn Pancakes ($18). For something lighter, there is granola ($17) or a smoothie ($8).
Lunch options are a bit more varied, which honors Kagel’s mother who celebrated life by serving all kinds of cuisines which informed her outrageously diverse palate growing up in Berkeley, California. The dishes also pay homage to Kagel’s favorite childhood Mexican restaurant, Don Pequin’s.
Start with a shrimp cocktail ($19) or share a tempting salad with your tablemates ($16). Entrees feature several Mexican plates including Oaxacan Tamale ($11), enchiladas or carne asada ($21). Or go all in with your choice of hearty sandwiches ($18) or a classic, but kicked-up green chile cheeseburger made with bison ($21).
Dinner brings inspiration from the Yucatan, El Salvador and Guatemala with Mole Enchiladas ($27) and Cochinita Pibil ($36), seafood dishes, such as Mahi Mahi Creole Stew ($33) and grilled shrimp ($31), as well as grilled lamb ($41) and beef ($47). One who continues to be moved by global flavors, Kagel welcomes the insights her talented kitchen staff bring to the table. For three day parts, each menu provides a wealth of options and ensures you will never leave Cafe Pasqual’s hungry.
Emblazoned on the bowls they sell is the classic Mexican phrase, “Panza llena, corazón contento” which translates to “full belly, happy heart” and as we start a new year, this is exactly what we all need more of.
Read more about the Santa Fe food and hospitality scene at Heather Hunter’s blog, “The Cowgirl Gourmet in Santa Fe,” at thecowgirlgourmetinsantafe.com.