I recently had a long conversation with a visitor from Denver about how Santa Fe has a north/south divide. For us, this isn’t shocking or new to say. I find it hard to articulate beyond the racial, economic, political and historic divides that are common everywhere. Divisions in Santa Fe are invisible. There are spheres of culture that we exist in and you can exist in yours without ever coming into contact with the other ones.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t crossing. There definitely is. And it isn’t even hard to do. You just have to move outside the circles you travel once in awhile. That, however, takes effort and drive. This is a long intro to something that has always interested me about Santa Fe: restaurants with downtown and Southside locations. Plenty of cities have restaurants with more than one location, but this isn’t the interesting thing. It’s the clear distinction of downtown vs. Southside that makes this something to think about.
In the early 2000s, a sudden boom on the Southside mostly took the form of suburban sprawl, strip malls and chain stores. A surprising number of local places have carved out a space: Plaza Café or Blue Corn. Many of them are a second location to a downtown business. I wanted to see if they did different things for the different sides of town.
I didn’t survey all of the doubled businesses, of course. I picked one—Cleopatra’s Café (Design Center, 418 Cerrillos Road, 820-7381). Cleopatra’s is one of those great businesses in town that I always forget about. This isn’t a dig at the food—it has more to do with Santa Fe’s weird indoor shopping spaces.
The original location sits in the middle of the Design Center, not quite downtown, not quite not downtown. You can drive right by and not even notice the building. Lunchtime on a Wednesday, I figured it would be busy. Only a few people milled about. There was a family eating at The Kitchen Window next door. A few down the walkway at Pizza Centro. Otherwise it was quiet. I got sheesh tewook ($7.50) and dolmas ($5.95) and found a small table in the corner to read while I waited. Not that it ever takes long. The server soon brought me two plates. The tewook was great. Large bits of chicken grilled to a crisp on the outside and melty inside. Caramelized onion and tomato, and a traditional aioli on top. There was a little too much paprika sprinkled across this dish, but I soon finished my meal and went for the dolmas. Tangy, sweet and soft. One of my favorite clean tastes. They were just perfect and not overly oily like the canned versions most of us have from grocery store salad bars. The only real off-note is that you are sitting in a caged-in seating area in the middle of a mostly-empty mall. I read a chapter in my book, dropped off a pair of pants to be hemmed at Santa Fe Seamstress and went on with my day.
A week earlier I had gone to the Southside Cleopatra’s (3482 Zafarano Drive, 474-5644) on a whim with a group of friends and had ordered the same thing. That was where the idea came from to compare the two. The tewook and dolmas were both the same price and almost exact in their taste. The Southside location put less paprika on top, and the sauce was maybe a little less tangy, but otherwise they were identical down to the plates they were served on.The big change is that the Southside location has a large room to itself, though it’s no less odd. It feels like a cafeteria with high tabletops spaced loosely in the large, echoey room. They’ve managed to re-create the feeling of sitting in a food court at a mall in both of their spaces. Which is part of the charm, I suppose. It certainly doesn’t make the food less delicious.
So why two Cleopatra’s? With parking downtown as terrible as it is, and the realities of the divides in this city, it’s almost as if the Southside would miss out if there weren’t two. I would guess this applies to most of the dueling location businesses in town; downtown isn’t the only place that exists. The restaurants noticed and stepped in to serve the growing city that we are.
Prices: I expected the downtown version to be more expensive.
Consistency: It’s spot-on—a feat even for a single location.