Blame it on Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of arid wastelands. “It’s all desert and cactus there!” people back home exclaim if you mention that you’re going skiing in New Mexico. However, the Rocky Mountains run down the center of the state creating some of the lightest, driest powder around. Locals joke that if you’re caught in an avalanche, you can lick your way out… and still die of thirst.
The oldest capital city in the U.S., Santa Fe was founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1610. However, settlements by Pueblo peoples in the Rio Grande Valley date back 1,000 years.
Just 16 miles from the adobe-walled galleries and boutiques in town, Ski Santa Fe claims the second-highest base area in North America, poised on 12,175-foot Mt. Baldy. The cafeteria serves superb green chile (don’t forget the corn bread), but there are no lodgings or accommodations for miles around.
For that, you’ll have to roll back down the mountain to Santa Fe. A literal melting pot for Indian, Spanish, and Anglo ingredients and recipes, Santa Fe offers some of most exciting cuisine in the United States. On menus, sushi hobnobs with blue-corn enchiladas, while chiles (chipotles, habaneros, serranos) star in everything from pastas to ice cream. “The City Different” has some 600 restaurants—more per capita than New York City.
PEAK EATS IN SANTA FE
Coyote Cafe The numero-uno inventer of modern southwestern cuisine, Coyote Café is still alpha of the pack for eclectic, contemporary dining. Recipes highlight regional and native ingredients in preparations that initially seem odd-couple, but make you fall in love at first bite. Recalibrate your taste buds with dishes like seared diver scallops with a red-chile vanilla crepe, or rack of lamb with mole negro. Owner Quinn Stephenson is also the sommelier and cocktail concoctor, with specialties like a lychee martini. For something lighter, Coyote Cantina (on the roof) serves tacos, enchiladas, and burgers.
Café Pasqual’s “Know your farmer,” says Katherine Kagel, founder/owner/executive chef. All food is organic. Although the restaurant has been around since 1979, it still feels like a best-kept secret. A James Beard Foundation nominee as Best Chef/Southwest, Kagel looks for new ways to incorporate ingredients, weaving Asian elements such as lotus root and yuzu in a salad or heading to Old Mexico for a Yucatecan specialty, cochinita pibil (pork slow cooked in achiote and orange). Murals by Mexican painter Leovigildo Martinez that depict the moon reveling at her fiesta create a tropical vibe. Prices are reasonable and breakfasts (order anything with chile) awesome.
Geronimo “When I put a dish on the menu, I want to give you a part of me,” says Sllin Cruz, the executive chef/partner. Art and elegant banquettes counterpoint the thick adobe walls, kiva fireplaces, and wooden beams of the building, which dates to 1756. “I constantly think about how to balance the classics with new dishes,” Cruz explains about the “global eclectic” menu. Main courses might feature peppercorn-rubbed elk tenderloin or mesquite-grilled lobster tails with angel-hair pasta and creamy garlic-chile sauce. Innovative desserts include a wasabi panna cotta. “I imagine a dish in my mind and then put it on the plate,” says Cruz.
La Casa Sena You can’t beat the ambience at Casa Sena, snuggled the courtyard of a hacienda-style adobe that’s one of the oldest surviving houses in Santa Fe. Classic entrées get zingy twists, such as pan-seared salmon with a spiced mocha crust, or roasted rib-eye partnered with a mushroom-asiago-gorgonzola enchilada and red chile. Since the restaurant has an affiliated wine shop, the wine list has more than 1,000 selections in all price ranges, from Grand Cru Burgundies to New Mexico’s finest new producers. Want someone to sing for your supper? At La Cantina (part of the same complex) the musical wait staff entertains you with the best of Broadway and much more.
Compound Restaurant “Kiva Modern” describes the stylish but welcoming décor at Compound Restaurant. Named the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef/Southwest 2005, chef/owner Mark Kiffin has created a farm-to-table menu that showcases regional ingredients in contemporary American dishes with a Mediterranean influence. Changing seasonally, selections might include Alaskan halibut with watercress-butter sauce, or grilled Black Angus tenderloin with seared cepe mushrooms and foie-gras hollandaise.
Vanessie’s Piano Bar Flowing through the keyboard from Beethoven to The Beatles, Doug Montgomery has been Santa Fe’s piano man for more than 30 years. In his banter, the Juilliard-schooled Montgomery (he holds a master’s degree) shares little-known facts about composers, lyricists and Broadway legends. Most importantly, he enthralls with his interpretations of the songs, changing rhythms ever-so-slightly so that even classics seem first-time fresh. Requests gladly taken. Swank but cozy, the lounge has a tasty menu that can satisfy you from nibbles (crab cakes, ahi tacos) to main courses (from pizzas and burgers to filet mignon). It all feels very glamorous and chic.
MORE TIPS FOR FOODIES
Santa Fe School of Cooking Have you fallen in love with New Mexican cuisine? Then DIY back home—and get all the right ingredients—at this center that offers hands-on and demonstration classes as well as virtual sessions and a food and cookware marketplace. Participants learn about the “three sisters” that are the cornerstones of New Mexican cuisine (corn, squash, and beans) as well as kitchen hacks like how to keep tortilla dough from sticking to the press (line each side with plastic wrap). You’ll also share in the wisdom of chile whisperers like demo chef Jen Doughty: “Chiles are like wine grapes,” she says. “If a chile looks happy, it will taste good.”
New Mexico Wine Setting for the oldest vineyards in North America, New Mexico has revived its fine wines traditions. “Who thought you could make wine in the desert?” recalls Laurent Gruet. His family, Champagne producers in France, was one of the first to believe in new New Mexican wine. The Gruets planted their initial vineyards 170 miles south of Albuquerque in 1984. Today, Gruet Winery produces about 275,000 cases annually, predominantly méthode champenoise sparkling wine. Situated at 6,000 feet, Vivác Winery is one of the highest-elevation wineries in the world, owned and run by four dynamic members of the Padberg family. Top choices include the Grüner Veltliner and Refosco (a little-known Northern Italian red grape). Owned by fifth-generation farmers, Noisy Water Winery has an especially good line-up of whites, including a dry Chenin Blanc and sweet Malvasia Blanca.
Kakawa Chocolate House Handcrafted bars, truffles, and beverages come with southwest pizzazz at this specialty chocolate company. Kakawa (the name is the Olmec word for “chocolate”) recreates traditional Mesoamerican recipes and also launches cacao into the 21st-century with exciting flavors like green-chile caramels, a chile-dark chocolate bar, and prickly-pear truffles. Their elixirs (hot-chocolate drinks) accord with recipes used by pre-Columbian cultures, incorporating chiles, spices, and herbs.