Guess who's coming to dinner. No, not Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. This savory article touts three local chefs, a few good food movies and thoughtful ingredients like integrity and tradition.
"To eat good food is to be close to God," says Tony Shalhoub's character Primo, the gifted, temperamental chef of an Italian restaurant in the movie Big Night. In a spiritual similarity, Dharm Khalsa, owner and executive chef at The Chocolate Maven (821 W San Mateo Road, 984-1980), believes that "food has an impact on your entire being."
"At the Maven," he continues, "we want to evoke our customers with an inner smile. And when I eat out, I, too, want to have my soul impacted." So when Khalsa is not in the kitchen making buttery croissants, savory chile cheese brioches, decadent cakes and zesty lemon bars, he acquires the yin to his Maven yang at Vinaigrette, by feasting on what he calls "integrity in a bowl."
Khalsa expounds by referencing Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, a book that employs the sensual power of food to creatively represent the main character's consciousness and feelings: "The character uses her cooking to influence and enhance people's emotions. Her vibe becomes a primary ingredient in the food she prepares," he says. "That's why people are happy when they eat grandma's cooking—it's made with love, and that love becomes infused in the food. It's so hard to find, but I have found it at Vinaigrette." And Khalsa's biggest bowl of integrity is the "All Kale Caesar" (fresh kale with a zesty lemon-anchovy vinaigrette, fresh Parmesan cheese and chopped Marcona almonds). "Just thinking about it makes me salivate," Khalsa says.
If Larry David said to Erin Wade, owner of Vinaigrette (709 Don Cubero Alley, 820-9205), "I think I am just going to get a Cobb salad, [but] I'd like to make a few substitutions, if that's OK…" as he did on a TV episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, chances are she would let him leave off the bacon. That's because like Khalsa, Wade wants to ensure that people leave her bistro "feeling better than when they came in." And that feeling also comes from eating dishes made from the fresh organic veggies she harvests every day from her 10-acre bucolic farm.
But when Wade's not in the kitchen (or on the farm) raising the "salad bar," she admits, "I eat salad here, but when I go out, I crave a burger or something." More of a Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle kind of girl (sans the cannabis and childish shenanigans), Wade enjoys the adventure of eating out. "The drive to a funky, quirky destination is half the fun," she says. So when the craving strikes, she sets her course north to Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante in the Chimayó valley for their mini sopaipillows (baby sopaipillas tossed in cinnamon and sugar) or to Española's El Paragua. "I like the way flavors mesh," Wade says. "Even simple foods like the chicken guacamole tacos at El Paragua. The tang of the avocado, the earthiness of the chicken and the brightness of the salsa give it a fundamental interesting flavor."
Olga Atencio Garcia
Tradition. A poignant theme in Fiddler on the Roof, all of the Jewish villagers looked to it as a guide in their lives. Much the same, Olga Atencio Garcia, owner and executive chef at El Paragua (603 Santa Cruz Road, 753-3211), looks to it as a guide in her kitchen.
"For 35 years, I cooked beside my mother," she says. "Her unique way of cooking was passed down to me, and I continue to honor her culinary prowess in the old-school way we still prepare our dishes." Held together by long-standing family traditions, Atencio Garcia now has a new one. When she's not in the kitchen, Atencio Garcia eats at nationally acclaimed Upper Crust Pizza (329 Old Santa Fe Trail, 982-0000). "Pizza is one of my favorite foods and at Upper Crust, they make it right," she shares. "All the ingredients are fresh." Her favorite pizza? Black olives, mushrooms, jalapeños, spinach, and pepperoni...on traditional crust.