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Santacafe sticks to American-Asian success story

SANTA FE, N.M. — When Santacafe opened, way back in 1983, the culinary revolution that had begun on the coasts was finally sweeping through New Mexico. That revolution produced a thorough overhaul of American cuisine. Santacafe offered its version: Americana with a few Asian touches.

And so it still is today. The appetizer list then and now included spring rolls, sometimes made with nopalitos. The Bloody Mary delivered an extra kick through Japanese horseradish. Asian dumplings featuring American ingredients also were on those early menus, as they are now. But Santacafe also offers a green chile cheeseburger, roast chicken, and the classic American iceberg wedge with green goddess dressing.

For old times’ sake, we ordered those spring rolls ($11) to start. That day’s variation included romaine, mushrooms and red pepper in soft wrappers, and a soy-and-chile-flake ponzu dipping sauce. The rolls were nicely chewy, crunchy and savory, and the dip lent a salty, slightly sweet and hot note that was just right.

My guest chose filet ($20) as a main course, a very tender, thickly sliced medallion served up with a heap of the thinnest, crispiest shoestring fries we’ve ever seen. The meat was very tasty and cooked exactly to medium rare. The sauce served up alongside the filet carried the salty, deep tang of tamari-style soy sauce, the barest Asian touch, and one that married nicely with the classic herbs used on the steak.

My guest opted for an extra side of fried onion rings and these too were excellent: the lightest and sparest of breading, perfectly crisp, and thick rings, perfectly tender.

I opted for another American classic, a pot pie (also $20). Santacafe’s version was straight-up comfort food: peas and carrots in white sauce and, instead of chicken, wonderful large chunks of lobster. The “crust” was a tall crown of shatteringly fresh puff pastry. If I had a quibble, it would be that the dish was just too bland. Of course that’s the classic, for pot pies made with white sauce. But I wondered whether a hit of sherry somewhere in the sauce making, or maybe a hint of smoked paprika, mightn’t be nice.

Dessert presented fresh difficulties. Among Santacafe’s standard offerings are the requisite chocolate and vanilla: chocolate mousse with blood orange and caramelized pineapple glaze, with Grand Marnier-scented whipped cream or, more sedately, creme brûlée. Cake-and-ice-cream combinations are well represented, too, with chocolate and caramel-apple upside down variations on offer.

One of the day’s specials was daffodil cake. It was wonderful, especially on a day the weather had announced spring. The cake was a mosaic of white angel food and yellow lemon chiffon, and lemon mousse on the side that was superbly tart. A generous slather of freshly whipped cream offered a rich counterpoint.

My guest chose another standard usually available on Santacafe’s menu in some iteration: bread pudding ($8.50). That day’s variety was a standard vanilla-cinnamon concoction, baked in an outsized muffin cup, turned out on a plate and drizzled with warm caramel. The counterpoint here proved to be house-made vanilla ice cream

Dessert portions were huge, we should note. On top of our indulgence in the rest of the meal, they were more than we could tackle. Each of our choices, my guest estimated, would serve four.

Service was, of course, flawless. We enjoyed the austerity of the white walls and tablecloths, and were bemused by the crayons, supplied for doodling on the paper table toppers. My guest contributed a palm tree, while I used the purple crayon to supply a textual compliment for an excellent meal.

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