When it comes to food, I can go highbrow and I can go lowbrow, but I detest the in-between.
"Curiosity" is too flaccid a word to capture the allure of the magician/con-artist chefs who must have the freshest this, the rarest that and the most precise such and such. I am willing to be suckered in by air-parched crab knuckles on a side-car of Komodo-masticated albino celery. Got a frittata for $40 because your molecular gastronomist infused it with the essence of skin from a golden pygmy banana—but only after it was shit out by a pregnant bonobo? I'm your man. At least the once.
At the same time, I cannot resist the filthiest-looking taco cart. Put it next to a landfill and make the cook salvage the ingredients that didn't come from the discount, big-box grocer or some gullible Food Not Bombs volunteer—chances are there's some kind of alchemy going on that turns grease into gold. If you stand on the corner of the park in a bloody shirt and sell deep-fried "Navajo-style" prairie dog paws—four for a dollar—I'll be first in line.
But put basic seating in an ordinary room and offer a menu of, I don't know, Reuben sandwiches or black bean flautas or spaghetti with meatballs, and I'll probably hate you. Mid-ranged, reasonably priced food too often means mediocrity. And mediocrity is the death of inspiration, a vacuum of hope and the inexorable diminishment of any kind of IQ with which one's taste buds were fortunate enough to be formed.
But George Gundrey's recently opened Atrisco Café and Bar has reminded me that there is value in the middle path or, more aptly, where paths meet in the middle. "Atrisco" is a Spanish derivation of a Náhuatl (Aztec) word that originally meant "on the water." In New Mexico, it was a settlement on the Rio Grande at the junction of the El Camino Real de la Tierra Adentro and the Spanish Trail, so, in practice, the term has come to refer to a crossroads.
Gundrey is part of the New Mexican-style restaurant legacy that created Tomasita's and the now-closed Diego's. Atrisco is, in fact, in the same space as Diego's and uses the same liquor license. The renovations are major, but somehow unimportant: It's still casual, with a strange wall mural and brass chiles for door handles. The bar has done a backflip for a new position in the room. It's basically an alternate universe: Bizarro Diego's.
What is seriously different is that Gundrey, as the former director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market, is something of a local food fetishist. The chile is all from northern New Mexico, and the meat is all pastured and all New Mexican. The rest of the ingredients are sourced between Farmers Market fare and traditional food purveyors. The recipes are old-school Norteño, as is much of the clientele. Some of the older locals are probably eating very similarly at Atrisco as they did when they were children and there was nowhere to get lamb or beef save from the farm up the road.
These are the paths that converge at Atrisco: the fresh, local ingredients that have become synonymous with expensive "food snobbery" and the down-home, reliable menu that has always meant friends, family and fair portions for a fair price. It's smart and important—if local food is to make a real resurgence, it has to be on a practical, as well as a gourmet, level.
Atrisco isn't so fresh that I want to sniff its grease trap or anything, but the primary proteins are not being shipped across the country in frozen cookie-cutter stacks on a palette. I don't think I'll be having lamb and jalapeño dumplings in a watercress basket suspended from a tangerine trestle along with my absinthe anytime soon, but a combo platter and local beer will do just fine, thanks.
Atrisco Café and Bar
Open11am to 9pm daily
193 Paseo de Peralta (in DeVargas Center)