It was silver and turquoise that drove me to Santa Fe! Yet, I had the good fortune of discovering two great wines, great cheeses and a fabulous flea market. The food was not the highlight of my trip. However, I was thrilled when stumbling upon a man atop a mountain selling pinons that he kept in a cooler to keep them fresh. I asked him how was business and grinning he said “fabulous!”
Apparently the nut comes into mast every 7 years and this was one. I have never tasted pine nuts that were so delicious. There were trucks parked and selling nuts and root crops on the main street. I bought some still in the shell which would require the help of an industrious rodent to help me retrieve the golden nugget. Pine nut coffee, known as piñón (Spanish for pine nut), is a specialty found in the southwest United States, especially New Mexico.
New Mexico is a stark contrast of poverty and wealth … the community thrives on art work and mining … jewelry of all kinds, loose gemstones, fossils are sold everywhere. The little adobe shops are charming and I was thrilled to see a shop strictly dedicated to Chili Peppers. Skulls, ponchos and chili ristras are on every street corner. I recommend you find a place to sit and have a beer or a glass of wine and an appetizer while strolling through the streets listening to competing musical buskers – I found the merchants friendly and they seemed very welcoming to tourists- which can’t be said of many places that I have traveled. I bought myself a pair of glass chili earrings at Dressman’s gifts and was quite pleased- they were 10 dollars. I will wear them when I teach in my famous chile pepper chef pants!
We drove through Taos and stopped at the Hotel La Fonda. A great way to scope out a potential place to dine is to go in and have a drink and a bite and ask to see the menu. The restaurant here was packed with hotel guests and the menu’s offerings and prices reflected that. I ordered a spicy crab cake and tasted Joel Gott Cabernet- I loved the full-bodied Cabernet. The crab appetizer was spicy and well seasoned, but the empanada was cold and covered in a Mexican rose sauce.
I have often found sitting at the bar brings indifferent food service. Next day we strolled through the Santa Fe Plaza to see Native American vendors and stopped at the Rosewood for a glass of Hess Chardonnay and more crab cakes ( I admit I love crustaceans) they were perfectly seasoned and light and delicious and, as I sipped, I spotted Michael J. Fox and his wife returning from a shopping trip on the square. Santa Fe draws many celebrities that manage anonymity in this bustling square.
Fabulous Navajos Rugs, Native American art and Chili Ristras abound in Sante Fe …but, I came for the exquisitely intricate silver and turquoise jewelry … New Mexico is the place for that!
Here you can find silver and turquoise jewelry all over New Mexico …Sante Fe is probably the best place to shop and there are three primary options. You have the retail shops that line the colorful Plaza with their advertised discounts of native jewelry …but buyer beware as these tend to be marked up and then discounted and may not be Native American jewelry at all … but imported from Mexico or China. Also on the Plaza are the Native American vendors line-up in front of the Palace of the Governors …these items are supposed to be created by them or a family member which should prove their authenticity.
Finally, the Tesuque Pueblo Flea Market just 15 minutes north of Sante Fe is an excellent spot to shop for all manner of Native American art and jewelry …however here there are no guarantees of authenticity but some great bargains can be had …and remember, you can negotiate with the vendors to get some great deals. We also had one of the best breakfast burritos ever sitting in the brisk New Mexico sun …overlooking rose colored hills covered in Pinion Pines, Unfortunately, the Tesuque Flea Market does not allow photography so you will have to rely on your imagination .I also stumbled across a few spice vendors and managed to buy some green chile, zatar, chipotle and saffron at a fraction of the price that I would pay here for those hard to find spices.
As dinner approached I wondered if I could eat Mexican food again … for a French trained chef, Mexican food lacks finesse and detail …it is a function of the ingredients, preparation, cooking and presentation. Food is often deep fried and smothered: There is no worse sight than pureed re fried beans that flood the plate, the rice that was made days ago and the pico de gallo, guacamole are hit and miss. You pay 20 dollars for a fajita plate and you get a teaspoon of each to fill 4 tortillas.
Here are the details of my journey – Finding Fajita!
On my road trip through Western North America it was very difficult to find good food. It is as simple as that! As it turned out, I found some solace in Mexican cuisine. As an Ontarian, my only experience with Mexican was a distant memory of ChiChis frozen strawberry margaritas in the early eighties. Most Canadians experience is Taco Bell – cheesy fries and faux meat- worse than tender vittles cat food.
Why is it that Canada has so few Mexican restaurants?… in the western states they are like the sushi and pho joints in Toronto … Everywhere! Mexican Food is not haute cuisine, but it has its appeal. The variety of flavors and textures that can make it monotonous almost every item that comes out of the kitchen is made with corn, flour, beans, rice, tomato, cilantro, onions and cumin. The difference between chimichangas, Doritos, burritos, tacos, enchiladas quesadillas …they have a very easy mise en place …they all use the same ingredients. However if done correctly they can be fresh and fun.
Mexican spots are popular because of the family atmosphere and the value that translates into huge portions. Margaritas are the litmus test and were served in those martini glasses with huge open rims so everything spills and far too much ice which melted and diluted the drink. Often bars use a mix instead of fresh lime juice and the synthetic flavor comes through. Happy hour is huge in the United States and it is best to order mixed drinks when they are discounted- Margs are not cheap – around 7 dollars. Yes and that tequila can catch up with you -bring Zantac! or take it preventatively before consuming the spicy food.
I am conservative when road traveling and the fajita … a tex mex dish that I order every time I eat in a Mexican place, is a good litmus test. Just how well can they season the chicken, cut it and cook it and do I get guacamole or pico de gallo or not? Is the cheese and sour cream extra- what about lettuce? It is different every time. I am dedicating a blog to that issue … with my recipe for salsa and guacamole and yes blue margaritas as well. Suffice it to say here: I don’t think Mexican cooks use a sharp knife … the strips of chicken at every single restaurant were irregular and often attached as if they were a hand and not a finger. Same with the peppers. My trick is to tell them to hold the onions.
While in Santa Fe, we went to a local restaurant that was recommended … The Blue Corn Brewery. It was a brew pub Mexican joint. We were served by a punk who told us we could not order 2 drinks at once … which you had to do because you could never count on him returning with any beverage. Worse yet the chips and salsa were not complimentary. That was a first! The fajitas were just as I expected and I ended up leaving them on the plate. Chile Relleno, another standby that should be fairly easy to execute, was greasy, soggy and cold.
On the road back to Colorado we stopped at Perkins …it is a breakfast place that does things right. They sell baked goods as well – although it took the cashier 15 minutes to ring in three muffins the fast breakfast service made up for lost time. The menu is enormous and the coffee flows and the food is fresh unlike the fruit salad offered to me at The BAVARIAN HOUSE in Glenwood springs. They offered up as fresh fruit special … bruised frozen peaches and strawberries and bananas.
I thoroughly enjoyed the trip and the serendipitous discovery of just- picked pinons and a quick stop at Trader Joe’s, which I pray comes to Canada. I tasted delicious cheeses such as Humboldt Bold, Delice de Bourgogne and Amadeus- I bought a French stick, some fruit and was set for the road trip back to Colorado.
Santa Fe is well worth a visit- It is friendly, welcoming with lots of art and artisans. Warning- you may leave with a cowboy hat, a steer skull, jewelry or an ristra or two.