Postcard from Tom: Santa Fe restaurants offer many ways to enjoy red and green chiles

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

As far as veteran Santa Fe chef Martin Rios is concerned, people come to the capital of New Mexico "to eat good food and see art."

Not a problem. The city, which is celebrating its 400th birthday this year, stocks an estimated 200 places to eat and 300 or so galleries.

I did more eating and drinking than you'll read about in this dispatch, as some of my reservations in Santa Fe last month involved revisiting favorites that remain so. The Shed (113 1/2 E. Palace Ave.; 505-982-9030) is still great, as much for the tangy margaritas as for the red sauce made from chiles milled on-site. Other pit stops, such as the pan-Asian Mu Du Noodles (1494 Cerrillos Rd.; 505-983-1411) and the contemporary American Max's (403 S. Guadalupe St.; 505-984-9104), were fun to experience for certain dishes -- just about every appetizer at the former, pork belly BLTs and Rocky Mountain oysters at the latter -- but also less evocative of the region.

At the end of the day, I discovered that I was happiest grazing lower rather than higher on the food chain. Give me just three days in Santa Fe, and I want to eat as many red and green chiles as I can. (In deference to New Mexicans, and contrary to Post style, this story refers to the native peppers as chiles rather than chilies.)

I took two notable breaks from table-hopping, both at Ten Thousand Waves, a winding 20-minute drive from the plaza in the heart of the city. It's a rustic Japanese-inspired spa (3451 Hyde Park Rd.; 505-992-5025) and the perfect way to unwind after a long flight or before dinner. Let's just say that I'm a new fan of CryoStem skin therapy as it applies to my mug. And any meal tastes better after someone with a soothing voice has rubbed you the right way with hot and cold stones for 70 minutes.

We were an hour or so away from catching the recently opened "Abstraction" exhibition at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, but a companion and I were already devouring some impressive art, thanks to the soups at Restaurant Martin.

One soup, from the standing menu, was a corn chowder floating a tiny empanada that broke open to reveal shrimp, potato and poblano; dredging the bottom of the bowl with a spoon got us a taste of crushed, caramelized Marcona almonds. The other soup, a recent special, was pale green with pureed avocados, cucumber and honeydew, plus sour cream and yogurt. Rice vinegar and jalapeño slipped some heat into the cool concert; a little island of shaved fennel and radishes bobbed on an otherwise smooth surface.

Both appetizers emphasized the sentiment of chef-owner Martin Rios: "People eat with their eyes first."

Restaurant Martin is a relative newcomer to the scene, having opened last fall, but its Mexican-born namesake has spent the majority of his 45 years in Santa Fe, where he previously cooked at the well-known Geronimo and the Inn of the Anasazi. Rios's new home on the west side of downtown, which he runs with his wife and general manager, Jennifer, is a warren of small rooms furnished with local art. (The chef turns out to be as handy with a backhoe as he is with a hand mixer: With the help of a couple dishwashers, Rios transformed the outside into three levels of flagstone patio.)

The bestseller on the lunch menu is a surprise: Halibut tacos? In the desert? "Even in the desert," the chef reminds us, "we are capable of getting products quickly." Rios seduces skeptics by dusting the fish with flour ramped up with ginger, curry and dehydrated mint, sauteeing the pieces and arranging them in tortillas with a slaw of napa cabbage and jicama moistened with a dressing of avocado and jalapeño. Simpler but no less satisfying is a buffalo burger stamped local with velvety green chile in addition to cheese and bacon and served with a side of spicy "cowboy" onion rings that get some of their kick from espresso powder. Vegetarians are embraced with a tasting plate that highlights a sweet potato tart, pea-ricotta ravioli and a savory pudding shot through with basil and roasted garlic.

Rios doesn't shy away from trends (his diver scallops come with a foam whipped up from chicken stock, chorizo and tarragon), but he insists on quality; nothing but his shrimp is ever frozen, he says. Offered in generous portions, his is food with real zest.

Consider buying local if you imbibe. Martin's wine list includes a crisp sparkler from the Gruet Winery, an hour away in Albuquerque. A glass of the bubbly, made in the champagne method, brings France to mind even as you're soaking up a Southwestern vibe.

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