SANTA FE, N.M. — Joe’s Diner has been open for more than a decade, but in what now appears to be an oversight of cosmic proportions, we’ve never stopped in. We’ve been missing one of the nicest of Santa Fe’s casual dining experiences.
Joe’s is a proper diner, although admittedly given a modern interpretation. As far as possible, all the dishes feature local and organic ingredients. Located in an unassuming strip mall, it has a lunch counter and commodious booths, and the interior includes a bit of glass brick and some flourishes of neon. “Sit anywhere,” said the waitress who greeted us.
Arriving at lunchtime in the run-up to Ash Wednesday, we were full of the season’s penitential resolution regarding over-eating and sweets. One look at the menu and that was out the window. Right there at the top of the daily specials list were two of our favorite appetizers: calamari and pâté. Who could resist?
The calamari ($9) arrived fresh, tender and not over-fried, imaginatively served in a big martini glass along with two dipping sauces. The chipotle aioli was especially hot and spicy, while the orange sauce was mild and slightly sweet. I was unimpressed by the latter, but my guest rightly pointed out that it was the perfect foil for the chipotle heat.
The chicken liver pâté ($7) was chunky – country-style, definitely homemade and unencumbered with flavorings beyond what we guessed were flecks of parsley. Two generous slabs arrived with a wonderful savory-sweet onion marmalade and cornichons, along with bagel crisps for spreading. Like the calamari, it quickly disappeared.
Having perused Joe’s menu online, my guest arrived committed to the brisket plate with barbecue sauce and two sides ($15). She wasn’t disappointed. The brisket was melt-in-the-mouth tender, the sauce appropriately sweet and smoky.
The accompanying mashed potatoes were very nicely flavored with roasted garlic and she praised the second side, coleslaw, for being lightly dressed and not overly aggressive in flavor.
Texas born and bred, she allowed as how Joe’s brisket plate might not have won awards in the heart of barbecue country. But, she said, it was satisfyingly good anyway.
I opted for the Nicoise salad off the list of daily specials ($14.99). All the expected ingredients were well represented. Atop a mix of greens, I found lots of slender and crunchy green beans, several tiny boiled red potatoes and sliced egg, some pear tomatoes and a good smattering of salty black olives, plus – perhaps unusually – artichoke hearts.
The main point of the dish, of course, is the fish – in this case, a generous serving of tuna steak, freshly grilled but still rare in the middle. No sign of the anchovies usual in the classic version of this dish, nor of the vinaigrette dressing. Instead, Joe’s tosses its version instead with a very mild and creamy dressing well-flavored with dill. That might not be to everyone’s taste, but it was to mine, already surfeited with post-New Year’s salads soused in lean vinegar.
Joe’s regular menu runs the diner gamut from breakfast standards (pancakes are the blue-corn-and-piñon variety) to a sandwich selection, including burgers, as well as blue-plate offerings ranging from chopped steak and brisket to lamb, salmon and pork chops. Even the pickiest eater should be able to find something on the long list that pleases.
As for service, Joe’s excels – some of the best service we’ve experienced in Santa Fe. Our waitress arrived magically, as if in answer to our unspoken thoughts, with take-home containers (for the remnants of the salad) and later a platter of the day’s dessert offerings. (I hadn’t cleaned my plate, but she accurately divined that, yes, I wanted dessert anyway.)
And what a choice we had: chocolate mousse, two lemony concoctions, coconut cake and always pie, in this case, apple-raisin. Dizzying. The pie was tempting, particularly since Joe’s bakers make their own, with different fruit variations seasonally. In the end, however, chocolate and lemon won out. We chose the chocolate mousse pie – a menu standard ($6.75) – and a special, lemon mousse ($5.95).
The chocolate mousse pie was especially notable because it wasn’t overly sweet. Dark chocolate and cream are the main ingredients, and that elusive dark flavor shone through, unsissified by too much sugar. The crust included dark chocolate, too, but was slightly sweeter.
The lemon mousse was, by my reckoning, really a lemon pudding cake – a favorite that I have even learned how to bake. Up-ended from its ramekin, it was airy lemon cake underneath, smothered in intense lemon curd atop. Garnished with large and perfect fresh raspberries, it too was superb.
So much so that the two of us battled over which taste we wanted left on the palate at the end of the meal. Chocolate? Oh, but lemon … . A spoonful of this one, a spoonful of that. In the end, both plates were clean.