We've all been watching restaurants become the de facto face of struggling COVID-era businesses (with due respect to all kinds of others). In fact, most of us have been doing our best to support them in what I'd honestly call an unprecedented way. With no guarantee of a future for any business—and, I'm inclined to say at this point, humankind—it's been a lot easier to think about takeout or delivery as a heroic action meant to stave off business closures and support community. Plus, then you don't have to wash your dishes or turn on your oven in the blazing heat.
But even as the people of Santa Fe have come together to make more frequent use of our city's frankly mind-boggling selection of top-quality restaurants, public health orders handed down by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham—first, no in-person dining, then yes in-person dining at 50% capacity then in-person dining at 50% capacity so long as it was outdoors—have reportedly been perceived as punishment by many eateries (though, it seems, it's mainly businesses in the southern part of the state and mainly spurred by the New Mexico Restaurant Association's openly conservative agenda).
At tapas mecca La Boca (72 W Marcy St., 982-3433), however, Chef James Campbell Caruso has seen things differently. Caruso phased to take-out immediately back in March, something he'd done rarely, but, he says, that became a more enjoyable facet of his business. According to Caruso, even though slowing revenue was and remains a tough new reality, it just makes sense to him that Lujan Grisham has only been trying to keep New Mexicans from getting sick.
"To me, it's empowering to think we have the power to mitigate the spread, and if everybody understands that, we do better," Caruso tells SFR. "It seems to be working according to the latest announcement by the governor. I don't just believe every single word she says, but it feels like the right thing to do."
Indeed, Caruso is one of the luckier restaurant owners. La Boca's adjoined dining room Taberna with its already-there patio space on the opposite side of the building, was prepared for Gov. Lujan Grisham's indoor dining ban. Additionally, Caruso says, he was able to make use of a city permit process that debuted in May and allows Santa Fe restaurants to expand outdoors assuming they meet certain criteria. At La Boca, where indoor dining is close-quarters even in the best of times, Caruso was able to take over a couple parking spaces on Marcy Street and add a number of two-tops. And though he says creating the new space racked up a bit more of an investment than he'd anticipated and took a little longer than he'd have liked, the permitting process only ran him about $150 and was ultimately fairly smooth.
"I get about 22 seats out on the Taberna patio, 14 in front of La Boca," he says. "That's almost like a small restaurant, that's doable from a business standpoint with minimal staff. I feel really fortunate; I look at other restaurants that don't have any outdoor space at all."
And it's working. On a recent Friday afternoon, Caruso pops out from the kitchen, masked, and removes his gloves for a photo op. Earlier on the phone, he says, meetings with the city about closing a section of Marcy Street fizzled, but today, he looks bright-eyed and happy about numerous tables. His new outdoor dining area has proved so popular, in fact, he's even had to turn people away.
Not bad for a chef in the midst of a public health crisis, let alone one who worked his way up from the bottom. Culinary school, Caruso says jokingly, is for people who don't know how to cook. His lessons were learned informally, with family at home, in dishwashing and busser positions; as a server and floor worker and with killer chefs along the way. His background, however, is in anthropology. That degree from the University of New Mexico has come in handy in the food game (New Mexico alone is one of the most anthropologically fascinating regions on Earth when it comes to food) and the tapas game. It also places him in the footsteps of greats like Mark Miller and Rick Bayless. It might also explain why none of the pandemic weirdness seems to have irked him—Caruso just kind of gets people.
That doesn't mean the road ahead is easy. Caruso left the Greater Santa Fe Restaurant Association recently (its parent organization's views and the the #LetUsServe protest were not for him), and as of this writing there's still no word on when the state will begin to allow restaurants more service capacity. Caruso also says to-go alcohol sales would be a godsend for the business, echoing pretty much all restaurant folk everywhere.
"That's a no-brainer, and people would really appreciate it," he says. "These laws about wine are so barbaric in this state—the way we corral [patrons] in, my patio had to have a four foot fence, as if they'd have a glass of sangria and go insane."
Caruso says La Boca's sherry cocktails would make excellent pre-packaged to-go options, as would bottles of wine. The implications to pairing possibilities along with the La Boca menu are countless, and it would surely help stave off the doldrums a little longer.
Whether or not that happens, don't expect La Boca to go anywhere.
"We're doing a lot of things that we've always done: We really enjoy cooking, we never stopped service, we kept going with takeout—there's a lot of things we do as normal, especially the health and safety things," he says. "The restaurants that do health and safety well are already accutely aware of hand washing, safety, none of that phased us."
"If I have to do it by myself," he adds, "I'll do it."