I have to admit that I stumbled into Mama Pacha (1722 St. Michael's Drive) after a trip to Lowe's supermarket to purchase squeeze- cheese, Lay's Limón potato chips and a box of partially-hydrogenated-everything crackers for an epic road trip with my kids. We'd be driving out of Santa Fe armed with junk food like they'd rarely experienced, and this entirely uncharacteristic additive and preservative binge had taken on the status of a special mission.
Next thing you know, though, Mama Pacha was there—calling out from the neighboring strip of shops with its über-healthy "vegan, organic, living food" menu. I'd driven by the little restaurant, squeezed between a driver's ed center and a tortillería, plenty of times. But this time around, the lights were on, and people were inside moving around behind a deli case and small counter. I threw the car into park, stashed the junk food in the back seat and struck up a conversation with Isabelle and Kevin, Mama Pacha's French owners, who recently moved to town from Durango, Colo. by way of Charlottesville, Va.
A sign above the restaurant's dessert case proclaims "coconut nectar, Jerusalem artichoke powder and date paste"—the only sweeteners the café uses. And the menu bills the food as "gluten, soy and yeast free," too. Agave is never blended into the fresh juice combinations ($5-$6 for a 12-ounce cup; $7-$8 for 16 ounces), and a note at the menu's end about the ingredients reveals that Pacha's nuts are "truly" raw—never heated or pasteurized. Intrigued (and, yeah, feeling wildly guilty about the canned "processed American cheese food" I'd intentionally purchased minutes before), I ordered lunch for the road. The squeeze-cheese could wait.
At first read-through, the menu seems vast, especially for such a niche market, but several items are still works in progress, described simply as "soon" (as in "coming soon"). Meantime, I zeroed in on a cream of celery soup (cup $5; bowl $7.50), the medicinal salad (side $6; large $10; x-large $13), a Mediterranean sandwich ($11.95; with a side salad $15.95) and a coconut curry wrap ($11.95; with a side salad $15.95), leaving the sweets and dozens of juices untested.
The cream of celery quickly became our favorite—a cool, smooth puree of fresh celery, house-made almond milk, coconut flesh and pepper. The tiny cup was finished off in a few quick swallows, and the flavor was distinctively celery, with a smooth, creamy, almost sweet finish. The medicinal salad packs tiny cherry tomato halves, black olives, sunflower seeds and an out-of-the-ordinary smattering of pinkish dulse seaweed flakes atop chopped romaine lettuce. What really sets it apart are the crunchy raw almond crouton squares—yum!—and the slightly off-putting dollops of a cashew-based, tofu-looking cheese.
Looks are often deceiving, and the cashew cheese acted as a binding addition, melting like a cream dressing into the lettuce and mixing well with the salad's fig balsamic vinaigrette. The Mediterranean sandwich comes atop squares of sun-dried tomato, almond and zucchini flatbread slathered with a tangy tzatziki of raw cashew, mint and cucumber. Black olives and a light, gratefully garlic-free almond hummus fill the middle, and a punch of paprika brightens the sandwhich.
Then there's the wholly unique coconut curry wrap. Colored electric yellow-gold from the curry, the wrap is a sheet of coconut that serves as a slightly elastic cover for a vivid filling of red cabbage, cilantro and green onions set in a mousse-like cashew curry cream plugged with coconut jerky. It's pretty, and its flavor is new and unexpected. Along with the soup, the coconut curry wrap is something we'll order again.
Next time, we'll try the Mexican- inspired entrees too—chiles rellenos and enchiladas (coming "soon"), along with the existing burrito and nacho plate. Raw, living, vegan Mexican food without gluten, yeast or dairy? All of it served in the shadow of Lowe's grocery store? Get there and try it—sans squeeze-cheese.