McDonald’s, that nasty, soul-killing blemish of a “restaurant” quasi-lionized in SFR by staff writer Dave Maass, stopped counting how many burgers it had dished out way back in 1994, after hitting the 100 billion mark.
By contrast, the lovely, deeply fulfilling Café Pasqual’s—oft lauded in SFR and publications near and far—“guesstimates” it has served approximately 5 million meals in the past 30 years. March 31 is the downtown eatery’s 30th anniversary (placing it just a bit behind SFR itself as a community institution.)
Sure, eating at Pasqual’s is a bit more expensive than eating at McDonald’s, but while a single ground beef patty at Mickey D’s may contain bits from up to 10,000 feed lot cows, any beef at Pasqual’s is going to be grass-fed, organic and, um, of a single animal.
Pasqual’s chef and owner, Katherine Kagel, is happy to point out that 95 percent of the ingredients used on the menu are organic. As a percentage, it sounds impressive but, taking into account the roughly 165 items used to comprise the menu, it sounds almost obsessive.
But careful attention to detail is what has made Pasqual’s a modestly heroic food paradise for so long. While the restaurant has a tremendous reputation, fewer people know about the Café Pasqual’s Gallery (located next door and upstairs). The roster of artists has evolved over time, a bit like a careful recipe. How each ingredient is chosen remains a mystery, but the dish is surprisingly good.
It makes sense then that actual dishes can be made in the micaceous clay pots of gallery artist/artisan Felipe Ortega. Ortega’s work is easily as beautiful as many of the fragile, decorative pots sold all over town, but the traditional Jicarilla Apache process that he uses results in clay vessels that are made to cook with—even over open flames.
The gallery features jewelry by LeeAnn Heirreid. Herreid borrows elements from the tools of carpentry and navigation, lending a practical air to adornment and an elegance to utility.
Oaxacan painter and muralist Leovigildo Martinez leaves all semblance of everyday application and creates figurative works in the magical realist vein. Portly, insane and gravity-defying figures exist within panoramas of symbolism and a deft balance of bright and muted colors. Martinez’ work also haunts the high niches embedded in the walls of the restaurant proper—an homage to how expert Kagel is with delicious Oaxacan cooking and how culturally intertwined art and food and life are in the Mexican state.
Bridging the gap between Martinez and the other gallery artists is Rick Phelps. Using salvaged scrap paper and plastic materials to create sculptural magical realism, Phelps engages in populating the world with an ever-evolving pantheon of creatures. Inspired by everything from politics to ancient alchemy, Phelps is like Dr. Frankenstein with a hot glue gun, breathing life into figures both heroic and tragic…and inevitably fuzzy with a tight coat of paper and debris blurring their edges.
Pasqual’s gallery is less frenetic than the usual art operations and, in many ways, mirrors the philosophy of the restaurant. Rather than go for the flash of regular openings and recruiting new stars, the gallery quietly goes about its business—sometimes hosting guests, but mostly quietly relying on the quality of its carefully chosen ingredients to seduce aficionados and create new devotees.
A meal can be prepared with fanciful techniques—flambés, foams and fanfare—to provide a flash of dining excitement or it can depend on simple, quality ingredients to deliver a longer-lasting, more beneficial pleasure.
Restaurants fall into the same niche: Some are gimmicky and generate excitement through mascots, happy meals and dubious fusions of contemporary cuisine, while others build foundations based on excellence, rigorous technique and earnest invention. Art turns out to be the same.
The 30 year legacy of Café Pasqual’s has taught us about all three.