Red patio umbrellas face yellow patio umbrellas across Old Santa Fe Trail and on opposite sides of the Santa Fe River. The colorful umbrellas on sturdy, upright poles are not exactly flags flying from pikes, but I nonetheless think of them as signs of the clash between two new restaurants: a brasserie versus bistro brawl.
At the corner location formerly inhabited by Meridian Café, Brasserie Zúñiga professes to offer Latin American fare from its modest digs. Enrique Guerrero, chef of Mangiamo Pronto! on Read Street, has been toying with breakfast and lunch selections since he opened Zúñiga and, like the politics of many Latin American countries, the menu remains unstable and prone to sudden changes. Again like Latin America, such upheaval sometimes results in brilliant innovation and populist empowerment, but other times mires the whole operation in malaise and turmoil.
The quesadilla, for example, involves an indecent bounty of fresh vegetables and a secret lacing of local goat cheese. It’s plump enough that even if the $8 price seems a bit of a tourist mordida, one doesn’t mind.
The Zúñiga hot dog, however, is blatant corruption. For the same $8, one receives a meat tube made rubbery by too long a tenure in a movie-theater-style rotisserie. That’s putting a lot of value in a side of chips and a wedge of avocado. Or maybe it’s the styrofoam container that’s worth such a sharp share of our ever-diminishing dollars. The hot dog must be a tourist gimmick—locals should stick to Chicago Dog or, in the summer, Santacafé’s excellent offering.
Behind umbrellas in the Garrett’s Desert Inn location that has killed very good restaurants (Lola’s—I miss you), Ze French Bistro has burst onto the scene with some help from chef Laurent Rea, formerly of the O’Keeffe Café. Here, too, some of the prices feel tailored more to sun-touched tourists than regular downtown denizens, but the menu is larger, the seating copious and the decor aggressively haute.
Coming in at the magic $8 price that grips the corner of the Alameda and Old Santa Fe Trail like a Dan Brown conspiracy, the Andalusian-style galette is a savory crepe stuffed with potatoes and chorizo, and topped with an egg. It’s a happy revamp of the more dominant breakfast burrito but, while wholly more satisfying than the neighboring force’s hot dog, the chorizo has a similarly rubbery texture. It’s chorizo to preserve in a survivalist hoard, not the kind of feel-good chorizo that someone’s grandmother makes.
However, Ze French Bistro’s open-faced tartine sandwiches and the selection of salads is forte enough that Zúñiga might consider a defensive posture with its yellow umbrellas. The bistro also offers a host of quiches and pastries that round out a fully French spectrum. It may not yet be ready to challenge Clafoutis for dominance of Santa Fe’s Francophile appetites, but it is, as of now, still marshalling its forces.
The final bone I must pick with these restaurants is their names. “Brasser” is French for “to brew.” If one is roaming the European countryside and encounters a brasserie, then beer will soon be touching his lips. Perhaps it has become acceptable in the US to ignore such definitions as though words have no specific meaning, but vagaries of language have already diminished our intellect enough—must they also diminish our appetites? Bistro has traditionally implied wine more than beer, but the argument remains the same—what is a “bistro” without at least the potential for wine?
It’s something I intend to confront both operations about—just as soon as they’ve battled each other into a weakened state.