Choosing a table inside Carmelita’s Cocina (945 W Alameda St. 983-6543) feels a little bit like dining in a crowded bazaar.
It’s Santa Fe’s scaled-down answer to eating in the marketplace—ordering New Mexican classics in the shadow of a dizzying array of goods for sale, much of it from the estate of Carmelita’s late mother or made by Carmelita herself.
There are retablos and vivid paintings by the café’s owner, aprons and skirts sewn by her too, knickknacks, glassware, ceramics, clothing and a surprising (and somewhat disconcerting) multitude of dolls that stare from the back shelves. In the midst of all this, plastic-covered four-tops are neatly set, and a cafeteria-style buffet case displays the kitchen’s favorites. Behind the counter, just beyond a bulletin board of family photos, Carmelita Laura Valdes Damron takes orders and describes the dishes cooked by her sons in the vast kitchen in the back.
She also gives the run-down on the merchandise that fills the other half of her café, explaining that her late mother always dreamed of having a shop, so an odd variety of wares are now sold in her honor. On the food front, Carmelita’s top recommendation is the pork chop ($8.95), a bone-in triangle of grilled meat, smothered with green chile and cheese and paired with two of the café’s four side offerings: posole, pintos, rice or vegetables. I opted out of the cheese sauce, but sopped up every drop of the green chile—an eye-watering hit of our local favorite that was prepared in-house that morning.
“Actually, homemade is what we’re all about,” explains Carmelita’s son JD Damron, “we make our own salsas—a red and green one—and prepare all the fillings from scratch, too.” Fillings include barbacoa (braised shredded beef), braised chicken, shredded pork and a tangle of herb-studded grilled calabacitas in the house green sauce, which is my favorite side with the pork chop.
Carmelita’s rice is Spanish-style, heavy on the tomato, and the posole was cooked with pork that day (sometimes with chicken, JD says) and oregano. It was slightly soupy and delicious. The fillings go into the restaurant’s plate specials: tacos (3 for $8.95), enchiladas ($8.95) and a burrito ($8.95). Each plate comes with two sides and toppings—lettuce, cilantro, tomatoes, cheese or sour cream.
Most sit-down meals at Carmelita’s start with chips and salsa ($4.95), and the house-made red sauce is great—mild and mostly tomato-y, with a punch of spice and not too much raw onion.
Carmelita’s counter buffet makes eyeing the take-out options easy. Red and green chile, salsa, beans, rice, veggies and meats are available to-go by the cup ($3.95-$5.95), bowl ($5.95-$9.95) or quart ($9.95-$16.95), and the plate entrees also come à la carte ($2.95 per taco; $6.95 for a burrito, enchilada or the chicken wings).
Changing chalkboard specials round out Carmelita’s menu, and a green chile cheeseburger ($6.95) begs to be tried, too.