Positioned at Canyon Road's origin point sits Caffe Greco, a quirky, family-owned restaurant that serves as an abridged introduction of what to expect for the throngs of uninitiated visitors exploring Santa Fe's historic street of art galleries. It's a primary-colored love letter to Northern New Mexican food and art, occupying a 200-year-old adobe building with red, blue and yellow painted walls adorned with retablos, cartoon cowboys and José Guadalupe Posada-style calaveras.
You'll find chandeliers made of antlers hanging almost at eye-level from low ceilings of wooden vigas and an old cigarette machine turned Art-o-mat which, for $5, serves up the most wallet-friendly art on Canyon Road. Add in the menu of standards as classic as a jukebox playlist, from huevos rancheros and enchiladas to Frito pie and stuffed sopaipillas, and you have a particular blend of elements perfectly suited to the uniquely Santa Fean style of synesthesia tourists feel so acutely—spicy chile and fried tortillas offered alongside works of art that seem to come from a dream where everything tastes as strong as it looks.
Owners Rita and Michael Linder opened Caffe Greco in 1992, after moving to Santa Fe in 1987 from New York City. Their shared passion was not restaurants but opera, which Rita studied at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, a conservatory in Rome, and which Michael performed as a cantor working at Carnegie Hall. Their favorite restaurant was Antico Caffè Greco, a historic café and the oldest bar in Rome. When it came time to name their Santa Fe venture, they decided on homage. Presently there are multiple generations of the family working in the restaurant, including daughter Julie Bell and her husband Lance; the Bell family owned a department store in Santa Fe for 58 years.
Though the Linders named their restaurant after a Roman institution, the wheelhouse of chef Ray Velasquez is undeniably New Mexican food, the kinds of things he learned to make in his grandma's Las Vegas kitchen as a child. His cooking has garnered plenty of recent critical praise with Pasatiempo naming his green chile stew ($8.95) one of the finest in Santa Fe, and Edible Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos singling out his Frito pie ($8.95) and green chile cheeseburger ($13.95).
Since nothing inspires a chile craving like the cool air of September, I decided I needed to try that burger. It arrived on a homemade bun sizzling and piping hot, loaded with Monterey jack and green chile from Socorro. Chunky and fresh, the green chile was a delight, and the burger itself was simple, locally sourced, grass-fed beef that was straightforward and delicious. My dining companion ordered a mixed vegetable burrito of spinach, summer squash, sweet peppers and artichoke ($12.95) smothered in red and green chile. The red was equally compelling, sourced from Chimayó, earthy and not too spicy no matter what the all-caps warning printed on the menu claimed.
My palate has a mid-level sensitivity to spice—I like it and crave it, but there are limits—and though the sauce made me sweat a little on that cool afternoon, nothing made my lips swell up or my face turn red or cause any of the other less-delicate side effects for which chile can sometimes be responsible. There are also stuffed sopaipillas ($13.95) featuring pork adovada or beans and cheese, crispy chalupas ($12.95) and, in addition to the homemade green chile stew, an arroz con pollo soup and posole are available for $8.95.
Caffe Greco also has items available on the menu that are not New Mexican, such as a Reuben sandwich ($14.95) and a green chile grilled cheese ($10.95) and, since the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you'll also find omelets ($12.95) and stacks of pancakes ($11.95). Breakfast is served all day, but the ribeye and grilled wild-caught salmon (both $23.95) are only available at night. Still, the regional cuisine outshines it all.
Beers are expensive at $6 for a Bud Light, projecting a sort of blue-collar version of the Canyon Road-style wine list prices further up the street at The Compound and Geronimo, but I'm not mad at it. The tourist experience is part of the pilgrim's progress, and Caffe Greco makes for a wonderful way station for the acolyte looking to explore Santa Fe's finer secrets.
233 Canyon Road, 820-7996
8:30 am-5 pm Wednesday-Sunday
Closed Monday and Tuesday