There's something to be said for knowing what you have and sticking with it. In the case of Santa Fe, New Mexico, chefs, that something is the chile pepper.
Long isolation from the rest of the Southwest and Mexico produced a distinctive style of local food featuring robust and often-fiery chiles in everything from enchiladas to eggs. Santa Fe's classic dishes might bear the same names as their Tex-Mex or Mexican cousins, but here they differ significantly in taste. Much more of their flavor is derived from local chiles; the New Mexican pepper, a crossbreed of two other varieties, was developed here in the late 1800s. You'll find other distinctive regional ingredients, too, ranging from blue cornmeal to chicos (dried corn kernels roasted in outdoor wood-fired ovens). The cuisine includes dishes that are seldom found outside the state, such as carne adovada, pork slow simmered in a fiery red chile sauce.
But change is afoot as Santa Fe celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2010. The city finds itself turning more of its culinary attention to the Spanish side of its roots. (Santa Feans used to call their New Mexican cooking "Spanish," not realizing how much it had evolved in frontier circumstances away from the mother country's food.) At La Boca (505-982-3433), Chef-Owner James Campbell Caruso offers the most complete and flavorful Spanish menu in town. The emphasis here is on tapas—like superb grilled young artichokes with Spanish goat cheese, saffron butter, and a simple shower of fresh mint—but you'll also find traditional Catalan entrées, such as zarzuela, a made-to-order stew with almonds, sofrito, mussels, shrimp, and clams.
The Spanish renaissance here has awakened Santa Feans to other international flavors, too. "We have all kinds of new food coming out of kitchens here, from Afro-Caribbean goat stew to authentic Vietnamese pho," says Nicole Curtis Ammerman, a native who now manages her family's Santa Fe School of Cooking. Leading the pack is Mu Jing Lau of Mu Du Noodles (505-983-1411), which offers specialties such as beef jantaboon, a spicy, stir-fried bounty of wide rice noodles, beef tenderloin, baby bok choy, scallions, sprouts, chiles, and roasted peanuts. At the Tune Up Café (505-983-7060), Chef Jesus Rivera pays homage to his native El Salvador with the huevos el salvadorenos, scrambled eggs with pan-fried banana, crema, and fresh corn tortillas.
Still, no matter what you eat in Santa Fe, you'll circle back to the flavors of the local chile pepper. Even restaurants with completely different styles offer chiles in preparations adapted to their own approach. Shohko Café (505-982-9708) turns green chiles into Japanese tempura, and Ristra (505-982-8608) ladles red chile beurre blanc over squash blossoms.
And if you want a taste of tradition, dozens of Santa Fe restaurants continue to specialize in classic New Mexican food; skipping it altogether would be like visiting Boston without tasting its chowder. The Shed (505-982-9030) is the grand-daddy of them all (and deemed an "American Classic" by the James Beard Foundation). The sauces here are almost all pure chile, not a mixture of a little chile with other seasonings, as you'll commonly find around town.
"Our chile is so popular because it's grown especially for us on farms in Hatch, New Mexico, and we grind the pods for our sauces daily right outside the kitchen," says Chef Josh Carswell.
Need to cool off? The Shed is also known for its cold raspberry soup, pureed with rosé wine and a dollop of sour cream—a nice way to chill your palate when you've had your fill of those fiery peppers.
BREAKFAST: Cafe Pasqual's
The long-reigning star of the Santa Fe breakfast scene is Cafe Pasqual's, where Chef-Owner Katharine Kagel merges local ingredients and global ideas. Griddled polenta is topped with red chile. There's a smoked trout hash and a magnificent eggs barbacoa with chile d'arbol, which inspired our simplified home version. "What excites me about choosing and presenting local dishes along with the emphatic flavors of Mexico and El Salvador are the shared ingredients common to the cuisines," Kagel says.
LUNCH: La Boca
Lunch at La Boca includes this summer-time specialty: Chef James Campbell Caruso slices cantaloupe thinly to cover a dinner plate, then tops it with olive oil, rosemary-infused honey, bits of Spanish blue cheese and ham, and a tangle of greens. You'll want to save room for dessert: Caruso's wife and pastry chef, Leslie Campbell, excels with fruity desserts, such as strawberry slices marinated in sherry vinegar syrup and topped with crème anglaise and a skinny, crunchy lengua de gato ("cat's tongue") cookie.
DINNER: Amavi Restaurant
Amavi opened to immediate acclaim in 2007. Executive Chef Megan Tucker focuses on regional Mediterranean cuisine—paying homage to Santa Fe when possible (try the pimiento piquillo pepper "chile relle-nos"). The menu changes regularly but might include the Spanish-accented salmon that inspired our version.
Go there: Amavi, 505-988-2355
Make it at home: Grilled Salmon with Chorizo and Fingerlings recipe