It's a Saturday night and eight New Mexico food bloggers have driven from as far away as Pie Town, New Mexico, to discover what's good to eat in the state capital. They have been promised a rollicking evening of orgiastic gluttony and the mission is launched at the Dragon Room. It is here that I have ventured to guess some of the best bar food in town is to be found.
The Dragon Room is the single remaining authentic dive bar in downtown Santa Fe. Open since 1944, it is unceremoniously devoid of props, though its whimsical label may not seem too far-fetched upon first impression. More like a dungeon than a lair, brass monkeys hang from the chandeliers and the windows let in no light.
Now privately owned by Dave and Christie Garrett of the Garrett Hotel Group (Inn of the Five Graces), both The Pink Adobe and its bar, the Dragon Room, have undergone a complete renovation in body and spirit. Gone are the popcorn, the suspiciously long bathroom waits and the shady exchanges of whatsits. Still, there are the wobbly bar stools with no footrests (more annoying than it sounds). There are new bancos, a new bar, new chandeliers and a fresh coat of paint, but it's the combined efforts of Chef Michael Roybal and omnipresent Chef de Cuisine Michael Meisel, whose red-blooded brilliance courses the veins of the place, that has given new life to the whole operation.
The bloggers are hungry to discover the Pink Adobe burgers ($12) I have raved about. They are a tough bunch who have instilled gustatory trust in me, so I'm scared. Nobody can resist the lure of the specialty margaritas, though these colorful permutations of the Silver Coin, including the Black Dragon (with Chambord, $12) and the Pink Dragon (with Prickly Pear, also $12), will be too sweet for some tastes.
Eventually, the burgers arrive. What they lack in fanfare they make up for in height. Ground fresh from New York strip steaks destined for the greatness that is the Steak Dunigan (of which a 7-ounce half-portion is available in the bar, $20), the Dragon Room's burger may have ruined me for all others. Served on a toasted English muffin and topped with Pink Adobe sauce, sweet green chile relish, Swiss cheese, bacon, sautéed mushrooms and strips of roasted green chile that offer a delicious solution to the problem of a soggy bun, it comes with fries and sides of lettuce, tomato, red onion and avocado. In the spirit of a true addict, I'm of the belief that everything at the Dragon Room is improved by the addition of Pink Adobe sauce, a mayonnaise-based ambrosia much greater than the sum of its parts; order an extra side of it for your fries.
Thankfully, everyone loves the burger and my credibility remains intact.
Although the full dinner menu is available in the bar, it's the bar menu that has captured my heart. The indomitable Gypsy stew ($8) is classically served with green chile cornbread, and the green chile stew ($8) shows restraint by comparison. But if it's stew you're after, look no further than the French onion soup ($8), which is a revelation; a profusion of butter-rich broth and jammy caramelized onions. The Pink Adobe salad ($6) is a simple production, but the rubbery little doorstopper of bread that sits atop the greens is inexplicable and defiant. For sharing, the cheese plate ($8) is fine, but the hummus ($6) is excellent—musky with cumin and not at all grainy.
Recent additions to the menu include the excellent buffalo nachos ($12) and the halibut fish and chips ($12), which are served hot and crisp—I only wish the pieces of fish were big enough to temper the substantial crunch of batter in each bite. The dish is accompanied by house-made tartar sauce and aioli, but I can't help asking for some of my beloved Pink Adobe sauce.
Crab cakes ($12) are good, if you must have crab cakes in Santa Fe. The BBQ ribs ($12) hit the spot, but the fried chicken ($15) is extraordinary and promptly rid me of my prejudice against the concept of eating fried chicken while seated indoors after dark. The chicken is first marinated for 24 hours in buttermilk and then in hot sauce for another 24 before being fried in vegetable oil. The sides, mashed potatoes, gravy and coleslaw, are at once blandly soothing and forgettable, but the accompanying hush puppy is quite inedible. Then again, she who attempts to tackle a hush puppy after packing away a couple of starters and a helping of fried chicken most likely gets what she asked for.
There are 22 wines by the glass available, and all—with the exception of Veuve Cliquot Brut Yellow Label Champagne ($25)—range from $7 to $15.
Desserts are all $8. I have a special fondness for the inordinately salty crème brûlée and the Dragon Room's unfussy brownie, but Rosalea's Legendary French Apple Pie, served with rum hard sauce and vanilla ice cream, is justly famous. The lemon tart, though tasty, lacks snap.
The Dragon Room is a place known by all and frequented by few. If you haven't visited since The Pink Adobe's yesteryear, then you may not know that its golden era has only just begun.
Dragon Room at The Pink Adobe, 406 Old Santa Fe Trail, 983-7712, Bar menu served every day from noon-9:30 pm.