"Ask me about wines, I'm the wino," Chef Estevan Garcia tells a neighboring table during a recent visit to his eponymous restaurant atop the Low 'n Slow Lowrider Bar at Hotel Chimayó (125 Washington Ave., 930-5363). With his infectious charm, Garcia personally supervised every table, striking up a conversation with guests and boasting about his newly installed bar, which currently hosts nine carefully curated reserves and three beer selections.
Many will remember the name, be it for springboarding the concept of Southwest cuisine alongside Jonathan Sedlar, for his time at the Hotel St. Francis or as the brains behind Café San Estevan.
For Garcia, a former Franciscan monk, the love affair with food is a lifelong one.
"I started cooking when I was about 6, 7 years old, with my mom, in the kitchen, playing with the dough," he recalls. "She would give me dough so I would shut my mouth. She taught me how to make sopaipillas and tortillas. I was the only one that helped my mom, because they were all machos," he laughs.
Once bitten, he took a baking class at Garcia Street Club "with all girls." There, he was mesmerized by cooking accouterments.
“I couldn’t even afford a measuring cup,” he says. “I didn’t even have a cookbook. All these people in the class, they had everything and I was, you know, pobre.”
Joining my companion and I at the table and pouring a glass of 2012 Santa Julia Torrontes ($8), the reminiscing stops when he jokes his memory is affected because he didn't take his pills.
The charismatic chef's endeavor is true to its slogan, "cultivar la tierra" (cultivate the soil.)
Artful lunch starters like guacamole on a bed of corn kernels with a dainty spread of chips ($8) look almost too pretty to eat. The queso blanco salad, featuring hearty slices of white cheese and heirloom tomatoes drizzled with olive oil ($9), also prove to be a delightful treat, as a light summer breeze blows through the restaurant's rooftop patio.
I ask if his posole ($7) is any good. A self-confident nod follows, mixed with just the right amount of outrage. I tell him I'll be the judge of that, to which he responds, "Judge my ass!" Estevan then told me about a family visiting from California that had stopped in the eatery days earlier and gave a glowing review of the organic stewed pork broth: "Just like abuelita used to make."
The secret, Garcia reveals, is patitas de puerco—pig's trotters. "What can I say, I'm into feet!" he says, letting out one of his trademark chuckles.
The entrées are of particular note. They reflect both the bounty of local produce he purchases regularly at the Farmers Market, the smokiness of authentic, "not fake," Chimayó red chile he gets straight from the source and a true love for New Mexican food that even during his early days, when a certain French chef would refer to him as "a dumb Mexican," never flinched.
Though prices are accessible, leave your diner expectations at the door. The Tucumcari smoked Edam cheese-stuffed omelet with pancetta in every bite ($9) is otherworldly. "Estevan's enchilada," with choice of chicken or beef ($11), is equally solid. It comes accompanied with calabacitas and beans, with locally grown chicos thrown in for good measure.
"How many people have that?" he asks.
For dessert, a heavenly flourless almond cake served with crème Anglaise was calling out my name. "It's like milk and cookies," longtime sous chef Jonathan Paczolt noted.
Did it live up to the hype? You bet your ass it did.
At a Glance
Open: Lunch 11 am-2 pm Tuesdays-
Sundays; dinner 5:30-9 pm
(9:30 on weekends)
ProTip: Save room for wine