In the ancient Japanese tradition of Nara, there are 72 micro-seasons. The cycle begins, roughly, on Feb. 4 with the lengthening of days and beginning stages of thaw as we emerge from the cold of January. Real signs of spring in Santa Fe are probably a month away, last week’s heatwave notwithstanding, but then again, if the last few weeks in America have taught me anything, it is that one must take pleasure where and whenever possible. What better time, then, to seek out one of my favorite guilty pleasures: meat pie. It has nothing to do with Japan or spring, but does have everything to do with sustaining through the cold days until spring.
I grew up in England. The mix of flaky pie crust, seasoned and gravied meat and spices found in traditional meat pies conjures my childhood. It's fireplace in a crust. They are stupid-hard to find in the US, though. If you go looking for meat-based pastries in America, you will mostly find the shepherd's pie version. It forgoes the crust and is instead baked in a pan and topped with a layer of mashed potatoes. Even this version is difficult to find in Santa Fe.
Zia Diner had shepherd's pie, but they've gone into that great vacant business park in the sky. A quick call to Loyal Hound (730 St. Michael's Drive, 471-0440) confirmed the rumors that it has a shepherd's pie special (made with lamb and probably delicious), but it isn't scheduled in advance. Loyal Hound posts its specials on Facebook, so I'll be keeping an eye out.
Betterday Coffee (905 W Alameda St., 780-8059) has added sausage and egg hand pies to its growing list of foodstuffs. The crust is flaky and golden, they are baked to a perfect shiny gold and stuffed with Betterday's housemade sausage and an insane amount of eggs. Just the right amount of cheddar mixed throughout finishes off this simple pastry. I ate mine cold. It was delightful, and at $5.40, not a bad price for a really great snack. I could have had three of them—but still, meat pie this was not.
It turns out only one menu in Santa Fe (that I could find) regularly offers shepherd's pie, and although it wasn't the version of meat pie I wanted, 2017 needs to be a year of self-care and small pleasures. After making sure I had enough change for the meters, I headed downtown to Blue Corn Café (133 Water St., 984-1800) to check it out. On my way, I texted my friend Lefty, who only joined me because he also has a love of the absurd and I promised to pay.
Blue Corn's New Mexican shepherd's pie is a respectable $12.95 and was described as beef, calabacitas and mashed potatoes topped with green chile and cheese. It would do. Service was quick and friendly. The music was a weird mix of '90s classics across all genres. The pie's presentation was excellent, arriving in a pristine skillet, smothered in oven-baked cheese and chile, with a few tortilla chips planted firmly in the surface. It looked like loaded nachos. It was odd, but food should always be fun.
First impressions are a big deal. Here are mine:
This is just cheese and chile
Wow, this chile is insanely hot
Oh there’s the meat. It is literally hamburger
There’s a few kernels of corn in here too. Interesting
This chile is really too hot
Green chile in a meat pie should make sense. It should be a no-brainer. Meat pie is made up of all the things that go best with chile: starches, dairy, meat. But this was not working. This was Frito Pie without Fritos. There was no taste but chile.
Localizing dishes is a great way to evolve them, but certain things are not better when New Mexico'ed to Hatch and back. Ingredients need to be balanced. The meat, potatoes and calabacitas were bland and hid under the heat of the chile. Even the cheese was lost. In a good meat pie you should be able to taste the spice and cook of the meat, the potatoes should not be an afterthought and the vegetable choices should pop.
So, my quest continues. Someone, for the love all things holy, open a meat pie restaurant. Or a hand pie truck. My birthday is in March, around the time the ancient Japanese calendar says hibernating creatures open their doors. Nothing would make me happier than to find a meat pie waiting for me.