Sometimes eating isn't as much about the food as it is about the experience. There are places one can sit and feel, almost through osmosis, the history of a place—the dramas, dreams and disappointments of those who have walked through its doors. The Legal Tender Saloon and Eating House in Lamy is just that sort of place.
Home to the closest national train stop to Santa Fe, Lamy was once one of the main gateways to the exotic American Southwest. Entrepreneur Fred Harvey took advantage, setting up one of his many Harvey Houses to provide weary travelers with options for food, rest and souvenir shopping. At its peak, Harvey's hospitality empire consisted of 84 Harvey Houses, but that was a long time ago and, over the years, many of these now historic buildings have fallen into ruin.
Thanks to modern day entrepreneurs such as Allan Affeldt, their history is -being reclaimed. Affeldt, along with wife Tina Mion, is well-known for his -restorations of Harvey's classic railroad hotels including La Posada, an 80,000-square-foot historic hotel in Winslow, AZ and the recently reopened Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Affelt's latest passion project is the Legal Tender Saloon & Eating House (151 Old Lamy Trail, Lamy, 466-1650). Originally constructed in 1881, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, and has been used on and off as a restaurant over the years. Affeldt, in partnership with Murphy O'Brien, who also owns Cafe Fina, now have the Legal Tender's doors once again open for patronage on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights from 5:30-9 pm.
On a recent Friday night, old Lamy was newly abustle with action, cars jockeying for slots in the packed parking lots of the Legal Tender and the adjacent Lamy Train Depot. Still a working Amtrak station, the Depot also houses a Chili Line Brewing taproom, Harvey's Cafe and El Ortiz Gallery. My friend and I hustled through the cold night and into the front entrance of Legal Tender. We were transported immediately to another place and time. Wide-eyed, we took in the impressive oak bar that dominates the bar room. Imported from Germany in 1884, it's a true masterpiece of fine craftsmanship that sets the tone for the dining experience; you almost expect a time portal to suddenly whirl around you and pop you out in a saloon with lively music, dusty adventurers and curvy Harvey girls.
The menu at the Legal Tender also harkened back to those olden days, purposefully compact and reflecting the traditional options of a typical Harvey House stop—unfinicky dishes highlighting regional American cuisines. The bar menu has just six wines, one sparkling, six draft beers and four old-school "fortified beverages," aka cocktails. Asked whether it was possible to order an off-menu cocktail, our server seemed a bit taken aback. It was just a Manhattan, but he said he'd need to ask the bar if they knew how to make one. We got a giggle out of that as we had noted upon entry that the bar was staffed by some of the area's more experienced mixologists.
As we waited for our cocktails, a man stopped by our table and recommended we try the pan-fried chicken liver with onions ($10) and the pecan smoked ribs ($12). I'm not a liver and onions girl, but the pleasant smell of BBQ that permeated the dining room was enough to know those were likely worth the recommendation. Nevertheless, he had us at his third suggestion, the onion rings, claiming theirs were the best he'd ever had. "And I'm old, so I know what I'm talking about," he added.
We started with the corn chowder ($9) and wedge salad ($10). The chowder was solid, rich and nicely seasoned and with a healthy dose of chewy potatoes and crunchy, fresh corn. I knew it was fresh because here and there also appeared a fine thread of cornsilk to remind me. The wedge salad was as expected, a full quarter head of crispy iceberg lettuce topped with an extremely generous pour of dressing, in this case a garlicky green goddess, offered in place of odiferous blue cheese.
The onion rings ($6) were served shoestring-style with a salty, crispy batter and tangy chipotle ketchup; we kept revisiting them even after we were full. To balance those out with something healthy we opted for the sautéed carrots with mint ($6) along with a creamy polenta ($8). Neither was a spectacular preparation, the carrots a bit overcooked, the polenta pedestrian. The poached shrimp roll ($16), on the other hand, was an interesting choice. How bread can stay crispy when cradling a hefty load of beautifully butter-poached shrimp is beyond me, but somehow it did. The accompanying slaw wasn't much on its own but was a nice companion to the tender shrimp, adding texture and mellowing the copious amount of rich butter.
Overall, a meal at the Legal Tender is absolutely worth the short jaunt out to Lamy. It is history come to life; good food for the eyes, imagination and, of course, belly.