Tex-Mex seems to have become a favored cuisine of the big-box restaurants that litter the Northern Virginia landscape. Rarely is the food outstanding, and usually the noise is nearly overwhelming.
So it is refreshing to discover the quiet haven of Mateo's Santa Fe Cafe, not that far from the madding crowd, in the Lake Montclair Shopping Center. Its location next to a child-care center might not seem encouraging at first, but the small patio dining area -- right on the sidewalk underneath a wrought-iron gazebo strung with chili pepper lights -- bodes well.
Stepping inside is almost like escaping to New Mexico. The architecture has the look of adobe, including the low walls that block the uninspiring views out the floor-to-ceiling strip mall windows, the banquettes and the arches that carve out several private dining spaces.
Decorations include depictions of Kokopelli, the hump-backed flute player whose image has been traced to the Anasazi people of more than 2,200 years ago. He is captured in the wall sconces, New Mexican pottery and Native American weavings.
All this is the longtime dream of New Mexico native Matthew Valdez, who opened the restaurant with his mother, Yvonne Valdez, in August 2003. Many of the recipes come from Yvonne Valdez's own kitchen. Matthew Valdez also worked with Isabelle Koomoa at the Guadalupe Cafe in Santa Fe to make certain that his offering would be authentic. Chilis are even shipped in fresh weekly from New Mexico.
The welcome is warm and gracious, though the service can be slow. On one visit, my (very good) margarita arrived after I'd finished my appetizer. But dishes arrived sizzling hot, obviously made to order.
Unlike Tex-Mex, New Mexican cuisine blends the food and ingredients of Mexico with those of the Southwest Indians. At Mateo's, that means a lot more chicken and vegetable dishes, trademark red (hot) and green (mild) chili sauces, the use of freshly cooked pinto beans rather than refried beans as accompaniments and, with some dishes, lovely corn pudding flans.
Starting with the complimentary chips and salsa, the flavorings are restrained rather than fiery. The salsa, made fresh daily, is chunky and deep red, and the crisp chips have a sprinkling of dried chili powder that gives them the slightest tang.
The chili con queso (with green chilis) and the guacamole, which along with more salsa make up the tres tapas appetizer, are also mild, though flavorful. Another appetizer, grilled corn and black bean quesadilla, is made with blue corn tortillas and chipotle chilis and is a pleasant change from the heavy cheese quesadillas found elsewhere.
The best of the dinner appetizers are the flautas, cigar-size tortilla rolls filled with chicken and Monterey Jack cheese that have been deep-fried and halved. They are served with small pots of chili con queso, guacamole and salsa. The flautas are light, the crispy tortillas nearly as thin as rice paper, and the stuffing moist and fresh.
Chimichangas -- large flour tortillas stuffed with either chicken or ground beef and then deep-fried -- are also crispy and almost light, not heavy and greasy. And the green chili con queso is like icing on a cake: just the right touch.
Hamburgers may not seem to be the quintessential Santa Fe food, but green chili hamburgers are, and the restaurant's version is a winner. A not-too-lean, juicy, tasty hamburger is topped with strips of grilled green chili (and your choice of cheese). These are not jalapenos and don't have their spicy jolt. Nonetheless, the bite of the chilis lingers after you've swallowed a bite of burger.
Mateo's Santa Fe Cafe has most of the Southwestern favorites: burritos, enchiladas (though here they are likely to be stacked rather than rolled), chalupas (served here as salad baskets rather than salad-topped flat tortillas), tacos and fajitas. The beef fajitas retain their good beefy taste and slight tang from marinating, and they are nicely complemented by the grilled onions and peppers.
There are also Santa Fe specialties, including a boneless breast of chicken stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese, breaded in cornmeal and deep-fried; and chicken breast marinated in tequila, lime, garlic, cilantro and brown sugar.
My favorite was the roasted ancho chili, stuffed with Montrachet and Jack cheese and red chili-toasted walnuts. More American Indian (except for that French cheese) than Tex-Mex, it was a satisfying combination of rich and creamy, crunchy and piquant. The accompanying corn pudding -- whole corn kernels bound in a mild custard -- reinforced the Southwestern roots.
There are even more Santa Fe favorites on the brunch menu, available from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. That's the time for huevos rancheros (stacked blue corn tortillas covered with chili cheese and two eggs) as well as sausage and cheese enchiladas and a burrito filled with home-fried potatoes, chili and cheese, scrambled eggs and your choice of regular sausage, mesquite sausage or ham.
Mateo's Santa Fe Cafe 5081 Waterway Dr. (in the Lake Montclair Shopping Center), Montclair, 703-670-7477, www.mateossantafecafe.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. Appetizers at lunch, $3.95 to $6.95; main courses at lunch, $6.95 to $9.50. Appetizers at dinner, $6.95 to $7.95; main courses at dinner, $7.50 to $14.95. Handicapped-accessible.
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