Santa Fe's Rio Chama ups the ante with its menu; makes it comfortable - Albuquerque Journal

Santa Fe’s Rio Chama ups the ante with its menu; makes it comfortable

Bluepoint Oysters at Rio Chama Steakhouse. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

Sandwiched between the legendary Roundhouse and Santa Fe’s oldest neighborhood, Barrio de Analco – home to San Miguel Chapel, Rio Chama Steakhouse is one of the top five places to see and be seen. Interestingly, the Analco district was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1968 and, having been originally settled in 1620, it is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods of European origin.

This rich intersection of cultures and religion may play a role in the attraction Rio Chama has on locals (and tourists). Or maybe it’s the food and hospitable experience the team consistently puts out that keeps the restaurant aflutter. Whether you are flying solo at the boisterous bar, meeting friends for a jubilant evening, gathering with a group in the large private room and/or expansive outdoor patio, or on a romantic date, the multi-layered allure of Rio Chama awaits.

This quintessential Santa Fe restaurant is a favorite with plenty of parking and lots nearby for overflow. Well-worn wood floors beckon you into this long-standing and well-maintained establishment that opened in 2000.

Rio Chama is one of a handful of restaurants under the Santa Fe Dining umbrella, a company owned by local businessman Gerald Peters. Sister restaurants include La Casa Sena and Maria’s, among others. Of the collection, Rio Chama is my favorite. Positioned as a steakhouse with six steaks and prime rib on the menu, Chama is so much more.

I once stopped in on an early Friday night to find the bar standing room only and, on a quiet Monday night, I was able to slide into an empty booth at the bar for a casual dinner with a friend. Rio Chama is a top venue choice for office holiday gatherings and Chamber of Commerce events. With such an assortment of spaces and consistency in both service and the kitchen, it’s easy to see why Chama is a local hot spot. Open daily from 3 p.m., they also offer Sunday brunch and viable happy hour specials from 3-5 p.m. during the week.

Oyster lovers will appreciate the succulent and briny bivalves flown in fresh daily. Sometimes life calls for a half-dozen ($20) or dozen oysters ($39) and a strong drink. The night we visited, we slurped gorgeous and big (but not too big) Blue Point oysters. A tasty mignonette and cocktail sauce with horseradish are dipping options.

Ask a local about Rio Chama and they will likely mention the Fondue ($24), a classic and fun dish that features melted cheese and assorted raw cruciferous vegetables, somewhat stale chunks of bread and Granny smith apples to dip into the gooey cheese. This is a festive appetizer – which we had at a recent holiday office dinner party – and good for a group – especially if you have kids at the table. General Manager Karen Gallegos says, “There would be protestors if we took that of the menu.”

We also enjoyed sharing the Wild Boar Platter ($22), featuring local meat shop Beck & Bulow’s boar bacon and sausage with goat cheese, grilled artichokes, cornichons, olives, crostini and fig preserves to round out these savory snacks.

You can never go wrong with Calamari ($18) and this version is viable. Alongside fried squid rings are fried banana pepper rings which bring a nice layer of spice to a dish that can sometimes fall flat. A dueling fresno chile-lime aioli and a sriracha dipping sauce further elevates this appetizer. Though the serving felt small for the price, our table of four enjoyed a few bites.

With the holidays upon us, my female dining companions and I zeroed in on salads and fish, but wanted a side for the table. Someone suggested the Parmesan Truffle Fries ($11). I recalled that the fries aren’t homemade, but asked the server to confirm or deny. He said, “Chef makes the fries in house.” So we ordered the fries and they are definitely fresh from the freezer fries. And with nary a douse of truffle oil. But that didn’t damper our enthusiasm because we were relaxed and enjoying the evening. Our server was amicable and amenable, happily bringing a few extra items throughout the evening as needed.

We ordered three different salads. One of my guests practically lives on the Chama Chop Salad ($21) with Grilled Chicken ($9) which she ordered as per usual. Typically, a chop salad is well, chopped. This one isn’t. Instead, a combination of smoked bacon, chicken, tomatoes, blue cheese crumbles, hard-boiled egg, roasted peppers and pepitas sit atop spring greens and zesty cilantro-cumin vinaigrette. I was impressed with the half avocado.

Another guest went with the Wedge Salad ($16). Not your typical wedge, this is different and well executed. Baby iceberg is topped with two huge slices of pepper bacon, chopped tomatoes, and long slices of cucumber, which really shine with this salad. Blue cheese crumbles and a ranch dressing make this salad feel like an entrée.

I ordered the Caesar Salad ($14) with Salmon ($16) and it was disappointing. One of the best parts of a Caesar salad is the crispy heart of Romaine. Crunch, crunch. But this salad was made with limp exterior leaves and not a heart in sight. And the lettuce was sparce. The saving grace was the salmon. It was properly cooked with a smoky grill flavor and not overdone.

And then there was the guest who out-ordered us all with the Chilean Seabass over couscous with roasted tomatoes and onions, a few leaves of wilted spinach, meaty and acidic artichoke hearts, briny kalamata olives and the most delicious beurre blanc sauce ($44). This was the dish that really knocked me out and made up for my limp salad. Once you squeeze the grilled half a lemon over the dish, it adds even more acidity and complexity to this stunning seafood entrée.

At the recent holiday party, I enjoyed the Atlantic Salmon ($36). Succulent lentils sit below a hearty chunk of grilled salmon with romesco sauce. The winter salmon dish now on the menu is with asparagus, and I am sure it’s just as good because this kitchen has a way with seafood. Being in the high desert, we can count on Chama for high-quality seafood, as well as serious steaks for the carnivores who need their beef. In the land of red and green chile, and Christmas, this is a much-appreciated gift.

As we close in on the last two days of 2022 and ring in 2023, dinner at Rio Chama will be just what you need to feel hopeful about the future.

_WebHeadline”>EXCERPT: Rio Chama is one of a handful of restaurants under the Santa Fe Dining umbrella, a company owned by local businessman Gerald Peters

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