A Celebration Of North N.M. Cuisine

SANTA FE, N.M. — Tia’s Cocina, which translates to Aunt’s Kitchen, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner at the new Hotel Chimayó de Santa Fe, formerly known as the restaurant-less Plaza Real. An upstairs conference space has been transformed into a dining room.

Usually, hotel dining rooms don’t rank high on my list of places to eat. Santa Fe, however, offers some outstanding exceptions, pleasant for both food and ambiance: La Plazuela at La Fonda, Amaya at Hotel Santa Fe and Luminaria at the Inn and Spa at Loretto come quickly to mind. Although she’s still a newcomer and more down-to-earth, Tia’s Cocina makes the list.

The management here took a risk, enticing locals and chile aficionados with the menu rather than offer the standard chef’s salad, BLT fare. Tia’s Cocina celebrates northern New Mexico’s traditional cuisine in a grand, delicious way. I love this food, and I loved the preparation.

On both of my visits, my friends and I shared the dining room with one table of customers. The restaurant’s second floor location inside Hotel Chimayó, above the Low ‘n Slow Lowrider Bar, doesn’t pull in street traffic. The hefty-looking ristras of red chile, candles flickering over the kiva-style fireplace, wooden floors and beamed ceiling provide the old New Mexico ambiance. We liked the guitar music drifting up from the bar; a rowdy crowd down there would create a different vibe. Service was good, friendly and well-informed.

Chef Estevan Garcia, a Santa Fe native and the energy behind the former Cafe Estevan and the current, first-rate restaurant at Hotel St. Francis, created the menu here. The hotel’s website notes that families in Chimayó contributed their own recipes. Garcia spreads his wings a bit with a few items –– baked flautas and a grilled red chile chicken breast and one of my favorites, the appetizer “Chile Relleno Moderno” ($11). This light take on a stuffed green chile arrives free of breading, surrounded by a lake of red chile enriched with melted cheese and garlic. We asked for some tortillas –– fresh, soft, and warm from the grill –– to mop up the last of the sauce. Amazing! You can also get the expected version of the chile relleno here, filled with cheese, battered, fried and served with green chile sauce on top. The fresh guacamole, mixed with a bit of chile for heat and served with blue corn chips, is tasty, too ($9). Like the guacamole, for the most part, the food is very traditional. Why mess with success?

The green chile sauce, an option with some dishes, is as good as any in town. But try the red. Taste it even if you don’t usually like red chile. Try it if you’ve never had red chile. Tia’s Cocina uses heirloom chile, grown and supplied exclusively from their Chimayó farm to the restaurant. This chile became available in November, and the restaurant plans to serve it from now on. It is amazingly delicious, not too spicy, but hot enough to get some respect and packed to the hilt with flavor.

We tried two wonderful dishes you find in mom-and-pop places in northern New Mexico if you’re lucky: “Lengua con Chile Rojo” and “Torta de Huevo.” And, a standard for any good New Mexican restaurant, an enchilada plate.

“Torta de Huevo” ($16), a dish associated with meatless Lenten meals, reminds me of the batter on a really good traditional chile relleno. The clouds of egg fritter floated in a bowl of red chile sauce, perfect for soaking in the savory sauce. (Were I making this at home, I’d add a smidgen of cheddar.) It came with a huge serving of baked macaroni in a mild tomato sauce. The fresh pinto beans came mixed with chicos, kernels of dried corn, which added color and sweetness. Beautiful bright green sautéed spinach provided color and another level of complexity to the plate.

We also loved the “Lengua” ($19), fork-tender, slow-cooked beef tongue, served sliced with chile sauce and moist, well-seasoned Spanish rice in addition to the beans, chicos and spinach. Don’t be afraid of this delicious version of beef.

We had no complaints about the “Enchilada de Chimayó” ($13) either. A standard presentation of a popular dish, it featured flat corn tortillas, cheese and choice of meat (we had chicken). The menu also includes soft or hard shell tacos with various fillings, a rib-eye marinated in red chile and a trout –– one of the few dishes offered at any meal with no chile at all.

Sopaipillas aren’t served with food here except for the combination plate. We had ours as “Bunuelos,” a dessert that used the warm sopaipillas, hollow rectangles of golden fried yeast bread, as the base for a scoop of ice cream and caramel sauce.

If you like New Mexican food, you’ll like Tia’s Cocina. I wish I’d had an aunt who could cook like this.