“I hate picking a place to take you to dinner when you visit,” my brother says. “It’s stressful.”
Me, hard to please? Never.
Fast forward to an hour later.
Though I’m 8,100 miles away from Santa Fe, I’ve somehow ended up at Cantina Laredo, Abu Dhabi’s posh new “Mexican” restaurant. I order foolishly and receive just desserts. What I mean is, I was literally given just dessert: an enchilada smothered in smooth milk chocolate ganache, fit to accompany an ice cream sundae but known here as “mole.” I am on my best behavior, which means no snide remarks. There is a lot of tongue-biting going on this week, in this city without non-smoking sections, rural economy, Angostura bitters and organic milk.
How lucky we are to live in Santa Fe. To meander, shortly after dawn, in search of Gemini Farms produce or to hike amid vanilla-scented Ponderosa pines or to break fast on the flawless breakfast quesadilla at Pasqual’s is an act of love. Though I sometimes hear people call it drab, the caliber and variety of the foods at our fingertips is astounding.
The usual complaints hone in on what the city is perceived to be missing, with the lack of Ethiopian food and no good grub served late being the most common gripes.
From here on out, I’m drawing the line. The success of this year’s Slow Food Nation and Terra Madre events have filled me not only with hope but with common sense.
Guess what’s great in Abu Dhabi that isn’t great in Santa Fe? Yep. Middle Eastern food.
Eating simply is what 2009 will be all about. Reflecting on 1,098 breakfasts, lunches, dinners and innumerable mezze, pintxos and midnight snacks, I’ve decided to make my resolutions not about restraint but about abundance. Sure, there will be plenty of stone soup to compensate for the occasional indulgences but, across the board, whether eating out or eating in, I’m shooting for less mediocrity and more excellence, and so can you.
Many new restaurants were opened in 2008, some of them superb: Clafoutis, Tune-Up Café, Max’s, Delicasa, Terra, Vinaigrette, Torino’s@Home, Cafe Cafe, Le Flip, Alfanoose, OK Mr. Pancho, the enthusiastically punctuated ¡A La Mesa! and Mangiamo Pronto!, among others. We bade farewell to Tara’s Organic Ice Cream, Cloud Cliff Bakery, Blueberry and Pepe’s Tacos. We welcomed the new Railyard Park and Plaza, and with it, a grander Farmers Market and the delicious promise, for starters, of Flying Star Cafe and Bin 132 wine and cheese bar.
Today’s Santa Fe boasts a much-improved O’Keeffe Café and a better Castro’s. In the spirit of keeping change afoot, we have now acquired Honnell’s Late Night Burger, still a mystery to me because of its weird hours and spontaneous off-days. And even though it’s not new, I’m happily amazed that locals have sustained Piccolino, a red-sauce, red-checkered-tablecloth Italian neighborhood place that serves mastodonic portions.
With this in mind, I resolve to reaffirm my love of carbohydrates as frequently as possible with the garlic cheese rolls at Back Road Pizza.
I’ll consider my uncle’s conspiracist theories on mad cow disease over these meaty local standbys: the burgers at Bobcat Bite and Counter Culture, the steak frites at 315, the beef jantaboon at Mu Du Noodles and anything at El Chile Toreado. Then, 2008 brought the advent of inevitable classic red meat dishes such as Torino’s lamb stew, ¡A La Mesa!’s lamb shank and Cafe Cafe’s Tuscan burger.
But if you won’t, don’t; there’s no need. Thoughts of my first collard green burrito at Body Café still set my heart aflutter, and the pupusas at Tune-Up have a similar effect. But my singular obsession is an ambiance-free affair with El Parasol’s vegetarian tacos (with guacamole and green chile salsa please, though you’ll have to ask for these, as they are kept hidden). If vehicular dining and ambulatory grease control aren’t your bag of chips, then try this: the famed burrata cheese of Aqua Santa, at once modest and proud on its nest of fried artichoke hearts, like a smooth poached egg that, when sliced, reveals trembling petals of silk, milk and curds.
And, dear Santa, when I look around the produce markets in Abu Dhabi, which smell faintly of garbage in the sun down by the marina, I think I must have been good this year, as I have so much for which to thank you. Things such as Mauka’s local arugula salad with beets, goat cheese croutons and maple vinaigrette and the Grande Taco salad at El Tesoro that sounds like a Tex Mex nightmare on ice but is, in fact, my fantasy salad: an excuse to eat hot fried tortillas and aioli, with some tasty protein scattered throughout.
Indeed, I’m grateful for all of it.
There is so much more. Are you hungry for it? More vital, more vittles, more razzleberry dressing? This could the year the sweet tooth places a coup against the wisdom tooth. It’s a year of food for thought, food from scratch, tarting it up, serving it forth, of eating my words, chewing the fat, dishing it out. (And hopefully it is the year I never again use any of the awful clichés I just listed.)
Cheers, and may you eat and drink to the health of the ones you love.