I'm sitting at the bar in Tomme, restaurateur Maria "Max" Renteria's latest venture, eating the best goddamned burger I've had in a long time. It's not the biggest, but it is the best.
Renteria is beside me, delicately consuming a Cobb salad. She's wearing a black button-down shirt and jeans—or something—whatever; all I care about is this burger. The beef is Wagyu, deeply flavorful and juicy as hell.
Officially, I'm here for the conversation. Until recently, Renteria ran Max's, an outpost of expertly prepared haute cuisine in this burrito-obsessed city (and one of SFR's picks for the top 10 restaurants of 2011). When I ask her why Max's closed, she shrugs and takes a deep breath. It's difficult for her to talk about, and there's no simple answer.
"Consumers in this town are so lucky because we have so many great restaurants," she says finally. "On the down side for the restaurants, there's too many great restaurants."
It's a fairly simple point, but it also defies reason. Anyone who's been to Santa Fe in July knows how closely the tourist-crammed Plaza can resemble a squatter, more earth-toned Times Square.
But even then, Renteria says, "You have so many restaurants all vying for the same stuff, all vying for the same customers. [In] an August week, we don't have enough seats for everybody, and then in January we don't have enough customers for the seats."
Renteria says she's considered closing during the slower weeks in January, but that she didn't want to lose a staff she describes as passionate and dedicated.
"I thought of doing every possible thing that you could do," she says. But Santa Fe's seasonal vicissitudes weren't the only problem; rising food costs also posed a challenge.
"In Santa Fe, you cannot charge what you need to charge to do the kind of food that we did at Max's and make a living," Renteria says. "Our food costs were phenomenal, but [chef] Mark [Connell] had the highest standards, and he would not put anything on the menu that wasn't top-of-the-line." At Max's, Renteria says, chefs used as much local food as they could within the confines of quantity and cost.
"We were doing really beautiful bone marrow from cows that were raised by River Canyon [Ranch]—phenomenal meat, great beef. But we could only get like eight pounds," Renteria says. "We needed 80 pounds. We were limited on what we could put on the menu by what they could provide for us."
I ask whether Santa Fe's diners would be willing to go blind—to visit a restaurant without a traditional menu, where local resources govern each day's offerings.
"Remember the Kitchen?" Renteria grins. She's referring to a closed vegetarian restaurant on Agua Fria Street. "They did one dish every day, just one thing—and then they went out of business." She laughs.
We are meeting the day after the president's State of the Union speech, so I ask her: Is this the State of the Restaurant? To oversimplify it, does a struggling, seasonal economy combined with high food costs and limited availability mean Santa Fe is just doomed to lose some of its best restaurants?
"You know, I think you've got the left wing and the right wing of food, and there's only two opposite directions," Renteria says. "One wants cheaper, cheaper, cheaper—and that would be the right wing—and one wants more quality."
With Tomme, Renteria is casting the net wider, expanding the quality-seekers to include Santa Feans who can't afford a $40 steak.
The chefs still try to use local, sustainable ingredients, she says, and for the moment, she's hopeful.
"We have a lot of those customers: They'll go along with it, man; they'll trust you to do something crazy and trust that it's gonna be great, and they'll trust you with their finances," Renteria says. "They'll take a chance on you."