The sign in the window was clear: “Enjoy St. Patrick’s Day at Thai Café. Live music, 6-9 p.m.”
This is not your grandmother’s Santa Fe.
Oh, we still have beaucoup restaurants offering enchiladas, beans, burritos, tacos and the other goodies associated with northern New Mexico. There has been an incursion of places offering genuine Mexican food. There is the usual smattering of Chinese restaurants, some Italian osterias, an interesting group of French and neo-French bistros and an increasing number of what might be called neo-American (upscale, fusion, for example) establishments.
Santa Fe, after all, has become a bit of a dining destination — a metropolitan area of about 125,000 people that boasts more than 300 restaurants (counting every Blake’s Lotaburger outlet), and in the latest James Beard Foundation Awards scored two national and two regional finalist honors.
But there are also plenty of small, exotic restaurants in the City Different. Santa Feans, it turns out, have an appetite for deliciousness from all over the globe.
Annapurna’s motto says it all: “The Place for Healing Cuisine.” This storefront next to La Montanita Coop in Casa Solana Shopping Center on West Alameda Street looks like a Middle Eastern bazaar. The food, however, is vegetarian and is praised for its organic freshness.
Annapurna is a Sanskrit word meaning “complete food.” And the food at Annapurna’s three cafes — the one in Santa Fe and two in Albuquerque — is based on Ayurveda: a 5,000-year-old system of establishing health and well-being from India.
Ayurveda recommends Sattvic (pure) food, with six basic tastes included in every meal. They are sweet, bitter, sour, astringent, salty and pungent. On the menu, that can translate into overflowing plates such as the thaali, with the vegetables of the day, cups of dal (mung bean soup) and sambhar (soup with vegetables), basmati rice, chapati flatbread and a yogurt, chutney or raita side.
Similar plates of south Indian or north Indian specialties start around $10.00.
Annapurna also offers several kinds of chai tea, sandwiches and wraps, casseroles and soups.
A taste of India
India Palace owner Narendra Singh Kloty opened his quiet, charming restaurant in a semi-detached building at El Centro Mall downtown in the late ’90s.
When the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened, he switched from his usual blue turban to a red, white and blue one, so people would realize he’s a loyal American and a Sikh. That’s a religion founded more than 900 years ago in his native India.
India Palace is a dying breed — a sit-down, cloth- tablecloth restaurant in downtown Santa Fe where a lunchtime feast can be had for around $15. Show up a little early: The place is a Mecca for downtown and nearby state government workers seeking a little peace and quiet and a most delicious buffet.
Help yourself to tandoori chicken (roasted in a 900-degree special oven), kofta (meatballs in marsala gravy), dal, spinach saag paneer (cooked with homemade farmer’s cheese), peas and potatoes in curry, raita and mango pudding. The unobtrusive waiters will bring the chai and freshly baked naan to your table.
The dinner menu is a la carte, but the entrees are worth the added expense, especially the jumbo prawns from the tandoori oven, or the chicken tikka marsala.
Jambo means “hello” in Swahili and Santa Fe has given an enthusiastic “bienvenido” (welcome in Spanish) right back to this tiny storefront in the College Plaza Shopping Center.
Jambo Café opened in August 2009, and in a matter of months had won rave reviews, a listing as a “best restaurant” in a local paper and the grand prize in a local soup contest.
The cafe is the dream of chef-owner Ahmed Obo, who is from Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya. He has been cooking professionally for 14 years and spent time in the Caribbean; hence the tropic-isle influences to his basically African dishes.
He is an imaginative and happy cook, putting his own spin on cuisine he learned in his mother’s kitchen.
Start with the coconut shrimp, served with a lime-mango sauce or just go straight to the specialty platters like the combination plate of chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti (African flatbread). The “spice-rubbed lamb sandwich” is made with slow-roasted New Mexico lamb with shaved red onions, tomatoes and a cucumber-yogurt sauce on fluffy pita.
The sun is rising
There are five Japanese restaurants in Santa Fe, all of them busy and offering different styles. The oldest is Shohko Café, 36 years old, which has a lively sushi bar and a restful, well-decorated (by co-owner Hiro Fukuda) dining area in its old adobe building on Johnson Street, down the block from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Go to Shohko for creative touches on the traditional, like the green chile that finds its way into sushi rolls and tempura.
Check out Kohnami Japanese Restaurant on Guadalupe Street for sweet tatami (matted) rooms, dramatically made sushi at the bar and such comfort-food traditions as yosenanbe (a stew of meat, broth, vegetables and rice, with an egg broken into it, and donburi, meat, chicken or fish cutlets with vegetables on rice.
For a quick meal, wander over to Masa Sushi, a casual storefront place in Casa Solana Center, down the row from Annapurna. The tuna sashimi is as fresh as can be. The “appetizer” tempura orders, a vegetable combo, or calamari are freshly made and deliciously non-greasy.
Another area of world cuisine Santa Feans have taken to is the Middle East.
There’s the Nile Café, which features food from the owner’s Egyptian background — lamb kebab and a “kufta burger,” ground beef mixed with onions, parsley and “special Egyptian spices” served on a bun with feta and fries.
Or there’s the Pyramid Café, which features North African, Mediterranean and Greek cuisine in a cheerful, busy storefront of the Cordova Road shopping center. There is a whole list of vegetarian specialties — try the Brik A Loeuf Plate, a Tunisian turnover with creamy mashed potatoes, egg, parsley and capers, served with a Greek salad, or the Spanakopita Plate, flaky phyllo dough stuffed with cheese and spinach, served with tangy tzatziki sauce, a small Greek salad and pita bread.
The venerable Vietnamese restaurant in Santa Fe is “the Saigon”— formally known as Saigon Vietnamese Kitchen. The family that owns it arrived in Santa Fe as church-sponsored refugees in the late 1970s.
The Saigon is an institution now, and like all such family-run cafes has had to make accommodations here and there to American tastes. Here’s a tip: order a la carte from the menu. Try the classic beef pho, a rice noodle soup with beef served with side garnishes. Or check out the rice noodle dishes, some hot and some cold — the Saigon’s menu refers to these bun dishes as “vermicelli rice,” which is as good a definition as any.
The cold salads of lettuce, mint, cucumber and cilantro with the noodles and a grilled meat topped with peanuts are a scrumptious way to stay cool on a hot summer’s day.
Travel to another southeastern Asia destination: Thailand. Thai Café is downtown and advertises that it is “the first Thai restaurant in New Mexico to have earned the prestigious Thai Select designation from the Thailand Ministry of Commerce!”
The food is consistently good, from the ubiquitous pad Thai noodles with chicken, egg, bean sprouts, green onion and ground peanuts to a stir-fried pad khing (ginger chicken). The dinner menu gets more ambitious, from appetizers to soups to salads and varied entrees, but the most expensive entree is a mixed stir-fry or a mixed curry for around $15.00.
South of the border
Then, there is the Little Cafe That Could. A few years ago, Jesus and Charlotte Rivera opened the Tune-Up Café off any beaten paths on Hickox Street in a small building that once housed the funky Dave’s and then Dave’s Not Here burger bistros. This last year, the world exploded for them.
They were attracting foodies from across town to the Salvadorean influenced comestibles. Then, looking for the defunct Dave’s Not Here, producers for the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ups and Dives” found the Tune-Up and featured it in a segment. To top it off, a local weekly dubbed the Tune-Up “Restaurant of the Year.” Now it’s hard to get into the place.
Jesus Rivera, the chef at the Tune-Up, is from El Salvador so you want to try the steak pupusas (kind of a turnover served with salsa and beans) for lunch or the huevos El Salvadorenos for breakfast for El Salvadoran-influenced favorites.
Rivera, who has been in Santa Fe for 10 years, worked at a number of Santa Fe restaurants before opening the Tune-Up Café.
Charlotte Rivera has lived all over, from East Texas to New Orleans, plus San Francisco, St. Louis, Mexico, Austin and now Santa Fe. She and Jesus met at Pasqual’s where she was waiting tables at night and he was cooking during the day.
She does the baking for the Tune-Up. Try some coffee cake or fresh baked scones for breakfast or maybe a piece of homemade pie to finish off lunch. Worldly food finds
Annapurna World Vegetarian Café 905 W. Alameda 988-9688
India Palace Cuisine 227 Don Gaspar Ave. 986-5859
Jambo Café 2010 Cerrillos Road 473-1269
Kohnami Japanese Restaurant 313 S. Guadalupe St. 984-2002
Masa Sushi 927 W. Alameda 982-3334
Nile Café 620 Old Santa Fe Trail 501-0612
Pyramid Café 505 W. Cordova Road 989-1378
Saigon Cafe 501 W. Cordova Road 988-4951
Shohko Café 321 Johnson St. 982-9708
Thai Café 329 W. San Francisco 982-3886
Tune-Up Café 1115 Hickox St. 983-7060