The trick to eating well in Santa Fe is to eat low on the food chain. There are exceptions to the rule, notably the chic Restaurant Martin, helmed by chef Martin Rios, but in my experience, the grander-sounding the menu, the farther you get from what makes this desert capital so enchanting.
The talk of the town at the moment is the introduction of an Asian gastropub at a popular low-key spa and the relocation of a favorite burger joint within the city. Throw in a bar with a heavenly view, and you’ve got the best of my notebook from a recent excursion to “Holy Faith.”
For the past 33 years, Ten Thousand Waves has been a destination for anyone in need of a soak, a rub or a Japanese-style sleeping room. And for the past three decades, the head of the tranquil spa, 20 minutes from the heart of Santa Fe, heard from guests who craved a treatment he couldn’t provide: meals.
It took him a while, but Duke Klauck has finally added a restaurant next door to his blissful retreat. The dining attraction goes by the name Izanami and began serving Japanese tavern fare — pickles, dumplings, grilled bites — in November.
Carved from the side of a mountain and named for a Japanese deity, Izanami is a luscious segue from the spa. Ceramic tiles grace the restaurant roof; a rocky waterfall near the entrance makes for a soothing soundtrack. The interior, fashioned from antique posts, rice-paper lanterns and twisted beams, whisks you even farther away from the American Southwest. Izanami’s woodworker, Jon Driscoll, is a resort rarity: He’s both an in-house master craftsman at Ten Thousand Waves and an ordained Buddhist priest.
The chef has never been to the country whose food she’s presenting, but Kim Müller, best known for her time at Santa Fe’s Compound, says, “I’ve been cooking for 35 years. It’s just learning the flavors and knowing how to balance.” The proof is in the eating: dumplings swollen with gingery ground pork; a crunchy salad of burdock root and carrots splashed with soy sauce, sesame oil and mirin; top-notch fried chicken that’s even better after a dip in Japanese mustard. Tired of Brussels sprouts? Izanami takes a fresh approach, frying the petals to a frizz and tossing the crunch with mint, lemon zest, chilies and puffed rice.
A seat at the counter lets diners watch their meal being made. The cooks in the open kitchen enjoy a view, too, thanks to a window that frames the wooded hills.
Izanami sweats the small stuff. For washing back the food, the restaurant stocks 50 sakes, some of which are featured as flights (three pours) that come with helpful printed descriptions. And when a diner is placed briefly on hold when calling for a reservation, the sound of rushing water keeps him company.
3451 Hyde Park Rd.; 505-428-6390. izanamisantafe.com. Small plates, $5 to $13.
Santa Fe’s best green chili cheeseburger got a lot more convenient in August when the owners of the tiny Bobcat Bite, fives miles southeast of town, relocated their 30-seat restaurant to Garrett’s Desert Inn, a couple of blocks from the historic central plaza. There, John and Bonnie Eckre changed the name of the place to Santa Fe Bite, dressed the 80-seat dining room in old gas signs and took advantage of the larger quarters to offer their signature 10-ounce burger in two more sizes, 6 ounces and a pound.
The secret to succulence? John Eckre says that it’s “not just one thing” that keeps seats filled at Santa Fe Bite. His hamburger recipe starts with chuck and sirloin (“no mystery meat”) that are ground fresh daily and continues with a cast-iron griddle, assembled by the former welder, that enhances the meat as much as the seasonings of black pepper and onion and garlic salts. Slow cooking results in a moist burger — and a wait time of at least 15 minutes for the pleasure, which is completed with zippy green chilies and a melt of American and Swiss cheeses.
“Some people ask for blue cheese,” Eckre says. “We’ll do it, but that’s all you’ll taste.”
A stellar burger calls for a flattering bun, and this patty gets it: a pillow of brioche made by a bakery in Albuquerque. Just as nice: potato chips fried on location. You can knock back the comfort with a local beer, although the kid in you should spring for a tall, true strawberry milkshake.
Not bad for two former vegetarians.
Unprompted, a glamorous solo act in the black booth next to ours turns around to sing the praises of Santa Fe Bite, which also serves salads, enchiladas and steaks.
“Everything here has been a failure” before, says the woman, who introduces herself as Clarice Coffey. Unlike the previous inhabitants, she adds, “this is jam-packed. The locals are thrilled.” She reaches into her purse, hands us her business card and bids us a lovely stay. Outside, I learn that our lunch choice has been validated by an insider. “Custom Tours by Clarice,” reads her calling card.
311 Old Santa Fe Trail; 505-982-0544. santafebite.com. Sandwiches $8.75 to $17.50, steaks $16.75 to $24.75.
Pinyon-scented air greets visitors as they step out of their cars at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado, where the view from The Bar of the resort — desert, endless sky, snow-capped mountains — suggests that Georgia O’Keeffe had a hand in it. That’s another way of saying that you want to show up at the lounge no later than 6 p.m. if you hope to catch a seat for one of the most dramatic sunsets anywhere.
The vista has a few rivals for your attention, namely some terrific small plates and cocktails. An easy eight miles from downtown Santa Fe, The Bar is the source of pleasantly tart margaritas and a Manhattan Project that introduces local Taos Lightning bourbon into the glass. (My verdict, after two brown rounds: It’s the bomb.)
Desert nights can be chilly. Hence the fireplace in the bar and the flame pit on the terrace-with-a-view. The food does a good job of warming up customers, too. I’m thinking now of The Bar’s large and fleshy chicken “poppers,” wings marinated in liquid heat before being fried and served with crudités and house-made ranch dressing to mitigate the sting. Heartier are the carne asada tacos, the steak fired up with chili powder for a local kick. Helping crowd the plate are fluffy Spanish rice and speckled anasazi beans.
By the time you read this, a spring bar menu should be out. Executive chef Andrew Cooper, who also oversees the adjoining Terra restaurant, promises a duo of local lamb top sirloin and sweetbreads, both rubbed in chili, and a pulled pork sandwich that packs pickled cabbage and guacamole in house-baked bread slathered with chipotle-chili mayonnaise. “I like to use chili in just about everything,” says Cooper, who does so with Four Seasons finesse.
198 State Road 592; 505-946-5700. www.fourseasons.com/santafe. Bar snacks $9 to $20.