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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; F01

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.

526 Galisteo St., Santa Fe. 505-820-0919. http://www.restaurantmartinsantafe.com. Lunch entrees, $11-$17; dinner entrees, $19-$30

If I could relive only one meal from my tour of Santa Fe, it would be lunch at Rancho de Chimayo, about 25 miles north of the city on the pictureseque High Road to Taos. From my first glimpse of the 19th-century hacienda, whose adobe facade is decorated with ropes of red chile peppers, to my last taste from the kitchen (the flan is fabulous), this long-lived restaurant and inn delivered lots of bang for the buck.

The nearly 400 seats are spread across several dining rooms, each with its own charms, and multiple outdoor terraces. We lucked out with a table on a top tier looking down, beneath a vivid blue sky and surrounded by cottonwoods. A gentle breeze fanned the perfume of honeysuckle our way. Margaritas, tart with fresh lemon juice, kept us company as we studied the classic New Mexican menu.

There's a lot to mull over. Picture tamales, tacos, huevos rancheros, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, carne asada -- and lots of follow-up questions. Will it be pork, shredded beef or chicken with those flautas? Green, red or vegetarian chile with the enchiladas? I barely made a dent in the possibilities, but I can vouch for several dishes, including the cigar-shaped flautas filled with shredded chicken and rounded out with fluffy refried beans and tomato-tinted Spanish rice. Someone at the table should order the green chile stew, teasing with soft threads of the headliner but not so searing that you can't enjoy the potatoes, tomatoes and fork-tender bites of pork in the mix. Among the house specialties is carne adovada, pork baked with its marinade of roasted pureed red chiles and arranged with comforting posole, or hominy. Each entree comes with a puffy, deep-fried sopaipilla, among the best I've had.

An electrical fire in 2008 put the then-43-year-old destination out of business until last year. As devastating as the interruption was, owner Florence Jaramillo, a regular presence from the establishment's beginning, kept her staff on the payroll while the place was rebuilt. Some discerning locals say the cooking even improved after the restaurant reopened.

"Did you miss the buses?" a local asked me when I told him where I had eaten. Rancho de Chimayo is a popular tourist destination, evinced in part by frequent choruses of "Happy Birthday" throughout the restaurant and a large parking lot. It's also an enchanting detour into the desert and the past.

300 County Road 98, Chimayo. 505-351-4444. http://www.ranchodechimayo.com. Lunch entrees, $6.95-$9.50; dinner entrees, $8.95-$20.50

"Here's your flu shot!" announces our server as she sets down a breakfast order of green chile stew.

You don't need coffee to wake up at Tia Sophia's. Its snappy service and zippy cooking work just fine. Smack in Santa Fe's tourist zone, the 90-seat cafe, run by members of the same Greek family since 1975, is also beloved by residents.

The easy, efficient service explains the crowds. As do the gentle tabs. (Breakfast for four hungry chow hounds set me back $49.) So does the cozy setting, which fits in well-worn booths, Navajo rugs and a skylight in back.

The kitchen flips pancakes and scrambles eggs (and also serves lunch). But as even a server there advises as she overhears us debating orders, "You can get huevos rancheros anywhere." If it's Saturday, go for the daily special. The chorizo burrito lives up to the promotion, stuffed as it is with fiery house-made sausage and draped with your choice of (dusky) red or (tingling) green chile; since I like them both, I ask for the two-toned "Christmas" treatment. On the regular menu, the breakfast burrito packs several strips of bacon or another choice of meat and crisp hash browns in a warm flour tortilla that can be topped with chile and cheese or an egg if you want. (Co-owner Nick Maryol thinks "the flavor is lost" when the eggs are tucked inside a burrito.)

As for that green chile stew, try it if you're a hothead. "It's our spiciest item," says Maryol of the bowl that brims with cubed beef, potatoes and onions, garlic and the sting of green chile. Like other area restaurateurs, he puts a warning on his menu, aimed at outsiders. "Not responsible for too hot chile," the message reads.

Who's Tia Sophia? "She's my yiayia, my Greek grandmother," explains Maryol, who together with his wife, Vada Rae, took over the day-to-day operation from his parents five years ago.

Tuesday is the cafe's slowest day; Saturday is the busiest. The best time to show up, says Maryol, is 8 a.m., after the big opening crowds have been seated and fueled -- and before the usual 8:30 rush.

210 W. San Francisco, Santa Fe. 505-983-9880. Breakfast dishes, $5.50-$9.25

Hungry for more New Mexican? One of the best food resources in the state is found at http://www.newmexico.org/cuisine, organized and written by Santa Fe-based cookbook author Cheryl Jamison and her husband, Bill.

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