SANTA FE — Opening a restaurant in July 2020 – during the middle of a pandemic – takes gumption, confidence and determination. In two short years, Zacatlán’s chef-owner Eduardo Rodriguez has captured national attention with recognition from USA Today’s Readers Choice Awards in 2020 as “Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the Country” and, in 2021, Cónde Nast named Zacatlán “one of the hottest tickets in town.”
Earlier this year, he received a prestigious honor most chefs only dream of – a James Beard Award nomination. Based on these accolades, combined with the fact that Rodriguez worked for the inimitable Chef Eric DiStefano, of Geronimo and Coyote Café fame, for 20 years, I expected a sensational dining experience and was exhilarated to finally visit this casita on Aztec Street.
A quaint space, you walk into the house and the hostess greets you on the left while the bar is straight ahead, reminding you that beer and wine are compadres (friends) with Mexican food. An inside dining area is to the left and a tight patio off to the right. Bright yellow walls bring sunshine into the enclosed outdoor space and you can hear birds chirping while Spanish music thumps melodically in the background. Greenery and flowers make the space feel cozy, while the eight tables are snug as a bug in a rug.
Brunch is served from 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. and they reopen for dinner from 5 until 9 p.m. Though the dinner menu boasts classic Mexican dishes that had me salivating, I wanted to experience brunch for my first visit, which is significantly less expensive.
Late one morning, my dining companion and I each ordered a bright red glass of Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus water) to quench our thirst. A lightly-sweetened tea, be sure to squeeze the lime on the rim into the drink for a puckery punch of acid. We shared a Cesar Salad ($12) and ordered Chilaquiles with Molé Negro ($12.50) and Fish Tacos ($20) and Churros ($8) for a classic Mexican dessert. Though we enjoyed the ambiance, the food left me and my partner a bit disappointed.
So I returned for dinner a few weeks later with another dining companion, and this was the exceptional culinary experience I had originally hoped for. Even though we did not have a reservation, we were whisked away to a table in the main dining room. It was a Monday night and though they did not know we were honoring a meaningful occasion, the complimentary half-glass of Prosecco they brought made the gathering feel even more special.
To set the tone for our dinner, my friend ordered a glass of Spanish Castillo de Monseran Garnachas ($13) to accompany her very first (and not last) authentic Mexican meal. Not having lived in Mexico as I have, she was unprepared but enthusiastic for the explosion of flavors, textures, temperatures and colors, and I was impressed by the chef’s significant success with the dinner menu.
Wanting to sample surf and turf appetizers, we started with Pork Belly Carnitas ($22) and Yellowtail Ceviche ($22). The chef and a waiter delivered our two appetizers to the table and the plates were so sophisticated and gorgeous, we took a few seconds to take it all in before we took our first bites.
The Pork Belly Carnitas is a stunning dish that is big enough to share and so rich, it should be shared. Two strips of seared pork belly are placed on top of a delicate strawberry and rhubarb tamale that sits atop a circle of deep, dark and delicious molé. To offset the fatty pork, a vinegary mound of fennel and apple salad with pickled red onions works beautifully to add a layer of acid and crunch to this scrumptious dish.
Once we devoured the pork belly, we transitioned to the cold ceviche. Served in a beautiful molcajete, fresh yellowtail snapper is chopped into bite-sized pieces and barely “cooked” with lime juice. A variety of diced bell peppers, chopped avocado, jalapeno and cilantro is added, along with a few capers for a briney kick. What surprised me was the inclusion of a few carefully placed fresh orange segments. This gives a sweet dimension to the ceviche – and I plan on stealing this idea the next time I make ceviche. Homemade blue corn tortillas are fried and seasoned with a dusting of red spice. The combination of crispy chips and soft, succulent marinated fish made me feel like I was back in Zihuatanejo for a few minutes.
Though there are eight incredible entrees to choose from, we both wanted the Whole Fried Red Snapper ($46) and our waiter assured us we could share the single entrée since we had ordered two appetizers. Once again, when the plate was set before us, the presentation blew us away.
The chef had lovingly filleted and sautéed the fish, and smartly used the red snapper carcass which he fried for plating. The fish mouth holds a thin slice of lime, while a serving of crab saffron risotto adds richness to the dish and elevates this to serious comfort food. The Veracruzana salsa, made with tomatoes, onions and green olives, pulls all of the flavors together and the grilled lemon half allows diners to add another layer of acid. We ate every last bite.
We were supremely satisfied with our meal and felt rejuvenated by the food as we walked to the car. And we deeply appreciated that we were able to linger between courses and not be rushed through this meal that activated all of our senses.
This exceptional dinner experience is proof that Rodriguez has diligently woven together his reverence for Mexico with the culinary lessons he learned working with one of New Mexico’s most acclaimed chefs and has now added his own signature to every dish.
In a city where red and green chile compete for attention, it’s nice to be able to immerse yourself in a meal that you would have to travel to La Condesa or Polanco districts in Mexico City to enjoy. Rather than fight the traffic and pollution in CDMX, we are grateful Zacatlán is here in The City Different.