As we begin another joyful holiday season, I have been thinking about where I can meet friends for a fun and festive atmosphere, fabulous food and a well-curated libations list. That’s when I zero in on a restaurant that delivers in big ways.
Meaning “female dove” in Spanish, Paloma, which opened in July 2017 and is conveniently located on Guadalupe in downtown Santa Fe, weaves together a jubilant atmosphere filled with vibrant Mexican art and food. This shift will be very clear once you pass through the doors.
As you step inside, you sense that you have been magically transported to Mexico. The interior lovingly proclaims “Te quiero Mexico” (I love Mexico) through bold black and white tiles at the bar, bottles of tequila and a large, carefully-curated collection of mezcal which decorates the welcoming bar space. Large metal chandeliers wrapped with marigolds signify a tribute to Día de los Muertos, colorful baskets hold vertically-placed homemade tortilla chips, and sturdy but gorgeous plates and glassware make this authentic Mexican dining experience a distinguished one. Even a graphic representation of a female revolutionist painted on the main dining area wall reminds guests to expect the unexpected at Paloma.
The youthful, hip, self-expressive and smiling staff clearly have fun at work and this sense of playfulness resonates with customers. My favorite Mexican singer, Luis Miguel, serenaded me on a recent early, but busy, evening. This was all I needed to feel at peace.
I started with the eponymous drink, Paloma ($11), a classic cocktail with tequila, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, lime and grapefruit soda. As winter and grapefruit season nears, this drink is going to be even more spectacular. My dining companion went with a smooth Fossil Point Cabernet ($14).
“Our food in intentional, the interior is also intentional and curated by owner Marja Martin to represent a mix of art from Mexico and local artists and artisans,” says chef and partner Nathan Mayes. “We try to take things that are familiar in Mexican cuisine and apply them with local products and local traditions. That is the Paloma formula – our North Star.”
He continues, “To keep things fresh, Marja and I regularly travel to Mexico and we bring staff with us so they can have the true experience. I took our sous chef to Oaxaca earlier this year so he could see how the formula works and he definitely ‘got it.’ These trips keep us inspired!”
One of the essential elements of Paloma is their dedication to nixtamal. This ancient method of making corn tortillas is an attention to detail that warms my heart because there is nothing better than a homemade corn tortilla using this laborious but totally worth it process. This is one way a Mexican restaurant can truly rise above the competition.
“From the beginning, nixtamal has been a central part of our concept. To highlight our dedication to the art of tortilla making, we offer a few menu items that go beyond the simple tortilla,” says Mayes. “Our quesadilla has a blue corn tortilla that is pressed to order and cooked on the flat-top. We also have a Crispy Pork Huarache ($18) and our Fish Tacos ($17) are served on homemade corn tortillas. Our top-selling fajitas come with homemade corn tortillas.”
Also featuring a crispy homemade tostada, the Tuna Tostaditos ($16) are the rock star starter that still has me smitten. Fried until golden, two tortilla halves are slathered with a generous layer of guacamole and topped with tuna tartare and a sprinkling of epazote leaves. This is an exceptionally light and tasty way to open your mind and taste buds. We loved this appetizer and nudged the two-top table next to us to follow our lead and they were equally thrilled.
To test the kitchen’s true talent, I ordered Guacamole ($12). What arrives is a seriously robust serving with crispy and salted tortilla halves, their signature chip. We loved the simplicity of the smashed guacamole and lime with pico de gallo stirred in. We were also enchanted with the refreshing Pepita Salad ($14). Light butter lettuce leaves are tossed with fresh diced avocado, sprinkled with queso fresco and a creamy pepita dressing.
My dining companion ordered the Grilled Sea Bass ($38), another popular entree. A slender, crispy skinned fish filet comes with potatoes and roasted poblanos in a savory fish stock infused with spicy tomato-broth. For texture, fried Romero Farms leeks are placed on top. Succulent and healthy, we savored this dish and scooped up the broth with a spoon.
The Mushroom Quesadilla ($16) is another treat. A large homemade blue corn tortilla is stuffed with Oaxacan cheese and sauteed local mushrooms. Once melted and the tortilla slightly crisp on the outside, this unctuous and hearty quesadilla is served with a salsa that reeled me in. Made with charred tomatillo, chile morita, onion and black garlic, this salsa morita is one of the best salsas I have ever had. It’s flavorful without being overtly spicy and activates every taste bud to make this a salsa worthy of bottling.
Vegetarians will find a happy home at Paloma. “This is a way we add local produce to the menu,” Mayes says. We ordered the Roasted Carrots ($10) followed the waiter’s suggestion with the Crispy Brussels Sprouts ($10). I love Brussels, but found the spicy-sweet fried balls due for a reinvention as the combination feels more Asian than Mexican. But the Roasted Carrots were so interesting, we happily redirected our focus. Pan-roasted, locally-grown carrots are tossed with chile-lime peanuts and dressed with herbed mojo verde, which Mayes describes as similar to chimichurri.
Though we didn’t try dessert that night, I returned to experience pastry chef Jessica Brewer’s desserts and quickly opted for the Mole Mousse ($15). A rich, dark chocolate dome on top of a soft chocolate cookie and is draped in chocolate. A sprinkling of preserved cherry halves, pepitas and crispy granola brings together well-played flavors and textures to make this a signature dessert. It looks like a work of art when it arrives, and it quickly evaporates on your tongue. Rich but not dense, this is the way to end your evening.
The next time you are seeking a festive spot with a vibrant vibe and dishes, head to Paloma where Mayes proudly proclaims, “I want people to feel healthy when they dine out and from a nutrition standpoint, I want people to feel nourished when they eat.” And that is another reason to keep Paloma on your hit list.