Years of working in the Santa Fe service industry have given me a restless palate. I'm serving and selling food all the time, constantly examining it and describing it. So when I go out—to use a decidedly problematic term we'll talk about later—I like to eat "ethnic" food. I wonder why there isn't more of it in Santa Fe, and why there isn't a more creative approach to drink pairings when I find it. Why can't I drink Alsace pinot gris with my North Indian curry? Why not Mosel Valley riesling with my enchiladas? Why doesn't anyone sling vermentino alongside spring rolls? Why not a shot of Oban with my unagi?
And what's wrong with the word "ethnic?" Well, it lumps all other cultures outside the dominant white majority into one impenetrable, inferior "other." Maria Godoy (paraphrasing Krishnendu Ray) writes for NPR: "When we seek authenticity from a star chef—say, Thomas Keller of the Michelin-starred restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se—what we really want is his signature, his individual creativity evinced through food, and we're willing to shell out big bucks to get it. … That's very different from the authenticity we demand from 'ethnic' cuisine. One of the big constraints, say, for Indian food or Chinese food is that, if it is expensive, it cannot be authentic. … Immigrant chefs are trapped for that kind of demand for authenticity—cheap authenticity."
Thus, the term "ethnic" actually warps our perspective on how much food should cost and how authentic it can be. By extension, it also dictates what kind of dining can be associated with it and, perhaps most damning and demonstrable, what we're told we should drink with it—and that has more to do with our prejudices surrounding the people making the food and how they are allowed to make it rather than anything inherent in the cuisine. It's interesting how so-called fusion cuisine doesn't have this problem, so a restaurant like Sazón can encourage people to drink Spanish or South American wine alongside Mexican dishes, perhaps because they are made with a Spanish twist. Spanish food, like French and Italian and arguably Japanese food, has gained status and respect in a way that precludes it from being lumped into the same category as Chinese or Mexican. It all boils down to our racial preconceptions, wordlessly telling us where to go for take-out versus where to find a white-tablecloth experience.
If an "ethnic" restaurant is pigeonholed into stylistic constraints, how can you convince people to buy wine or spirits when the perceived value of the food is always cheap? Wine is seen as a drink of status and rarity. For this reason it isn't often associated with food that is unfairly perceived as inferior.
For example, Canyon Road's Milad Persian Bistro serves the wines of Iranian-born Darioush Khaledi as a nod to the restaurant's Persian roots. It's not a bad idea at all in terms of food pairing, but will people pay $120 for a wine when the average bill per person is around $30? Izanami and Shohko Café can sell fine and rare sake on their menu, but could they ever sell scotch too?
It's fine to quote national publications, but why in Santa Fe specifically do we have this problem? We're a sanctuary city. We're progressive and diverse—at least outwardly so. Why haven't we done better for ourselves?
Maybe it's because we are decidedly landlocked. While immigration in the United States blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Santa Fe saved itself from economic decline by doubling down on a stylistic interpretation of its history, preserving the past in an effort to increase tourism and provide some kind of sustainable, permanent industry.
Tourists are our bread and butter, but they come from Texas, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. It's no secret that most of the people who can afford to travel with leisure from these places are middle-class to affluent white people on a quest for some version of authenticity in New Mexican food (confining it within the same narrow constraints of "ethnic" food). They're not coming to Santa Fe looking for the best banh bao like you'd get in Hanoi. Our permanent population is only 80,000 strong. Even if a couple thousand of us craved injera and doro wot, would that be a great enough number to sustain a decent Ethiopian restaurant year-round, never mind one with a wine list to die for? (The recent closure of Café Roja seems to indicate it is not.)
I don't wish to alienate the people who support this city, but I do want to see Santa Fe create a new culinary culture for itself by questioning how much food should cost and what makes it authentic or good, because that is still relative to how we market our heritage to outside forces. And maybe that needs to change. Despite the toxic national conversation about the role of immigrants in America that dominates our news, now is the time for the food scene in Santa Fe to rise above.