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Beauty all around, including on the plate

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Taos always surprises me with how many good restaurants it has. There’s no reason to go hungry in this little town, and the choices range from great New Mexican fare to creative American, bakery cafes and a nice choice of ethnic options.

If you’re looking for something with a big dose of glam, I suggest the restaurants at El Monte Sagrado – the airy The Gardens, the more staid and luxe De la Tierra and the darkly atmospheric bar, Anaconda.

Condé Nast Traveler, Zagat, National Geographic Traveler, Forbes and SpaFinder all have recognized El Monte Sagrado as a class act. The hotel’s valet parks your car for free when you arrive for a meal, and the great service continues inside. Before or after you eat, take a look at the beautifully landscaped grounds.

El Monte Sagrado

3.5 stars

LOCATION: 317 Kit Carson Road, Taos, 575-737-9855

HOURS: Open daily: breakfast 7-11 a.m.; lunch and dinner, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

FULL BAR

My friend and I wandered in for lunch. The all-day menu offers an abundance of choices, and our server and the rest of the staff had a good grasp of the available selections. She told us “everything is good here,” with a smile that made us trust her.

The bar is called Anaconda because of the beautiful and huge snake sculpture that winds around it. The room is decorated in an inviting mix of Asian and Southwestern and in tones of red, brown and gold. My friend and I joked that it would be a great place for a clandestine, even romantic tête-à-tête.

The Gardens dining room, although just next door, is bright with sunlight (if the weather cooperates), full of plants and seasoned with a waterfall and a huge built-in aquarium. The widely spaced tables allow for private conversations. The good service made us feel relaxed and welcome.

As we studied the menu, my friend and I noticed a large white bowl with colorful strips on top being served to the next table. It was the tortilla soup, we learned. Beautiful! Our neighbors also ordered a big bowl of fries topped with Parmesan cheese, a house special. They looked so yummy I almost stole some.

The menu features salads, sandwiches, “light bites,” steaks and other hearty entrees. Prices range from $9 to $28. The same menu is available at dinner, and served in the more formal De la Tierra dining room, sometimes to a background of live piano jazz. (The Anaconda Bar also hosts live music.)

I ordered the Tumbleweed Salad ($13). No tumbleweeds included, but much tastier shoelace potatoes sat on top in a tangle that resembled an artist’s version of a tumbleweed. Beneath the crunch was a bowl of greens mixed with soft chopped avocado, blue cheese, fresh ripe tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and bits of bacon. Each bite was a little different. It can be hard to make a chopped salad attractive; this one was.

We also tried a burger, a half pound of grilled Black Angus beef, medium as requested, topped with cheese and grilled jalapeños at our request along with lettuce, tomato and sliced red onion on a fresh toasted kaiser roll ($13).

My friend dug in and had this advice: “Once you pick it up, don’t let go!” The burger comes with choice of the Parmesan fries, fruit or mixed greens, with sweet potato fries or house-made blue cheese chips available for a little more. We tried the fruit: fresh blueberries, cantaloupe, honeydew and pineapple, all sweet, ripe and delicious. The burger arrived with a grilled jalapeño speared with a toothpick on top.

Other meal options include crab cakes, mac and cheese, mussels, elk and duck.

We finished with apple pie served warm with house-made cinnamon ice cream. The ice cream was great, and the pie looked fabulous with its perfectly sliced apples and swirls of caramel. But the soggy crust was the first misstep we noticed in the food.

The only thing I don’t care for here is the cavelike restroom, too dark for a gal to check her looks in the mirror and equipped with motion-activated water spout faucets that can give you a shower when you just want to wash your hands.

Monte Sagrado offers fine food and professional service in a beautiful and relaxing atmosphere.

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