Santa Fe foodies already know Martin and Jennifer Rios and their establishment, Restaurant Martín. It's been a local pinnacle of fine dining since 2009, and Martín's culinary creations have earned him more than a few James Beard Award nominations. Still, as public health orders seem forever in flux, dining's old world doesn't have a clear future path, but Martin and business partner Corey Fidler aren't ones to sit idle.
"They can't sit still for long," Jennifer tells SFR. "They needed something to do—a totally new creative project."
From that creative desire comes the aptly named Santa Fe Build-A-Bowl, our fair city's newest pop-up eatery, a joint effort between the Rioses and Hotel Santa Fe General Manager Fidler and a clever modular take on some of Martin's favorite dishes. It's not Restaurant Martín, but an entirely new dining style meant for an entirely new type of clientele.
It works like so: Diners choose a base item, such as cilantro-lime rice or tri-colored quinoa, from a list of many. Proteins come in a wide variety, too, whether that be grilled steak or Scottish salmon. Sautéed mushrooms, fresh zucchini noodles or shaved carrots make up the vegetable options. I've never been asked what glaze I wanted on meat before (I was given options of sweet and tangy hoisin, Cajun-tamarind or al pastor), but after getting past the initial intimidation of such freedom, I appreciated that I even had a choice at all. I mean, who else gives you power over your glaze?
Also, do you notice a pattern here? It's all about choice.
"The main idea is to choose your ingredients so you're getting exactly what you want. It's fun for us and for the customers." Martin explains, adding that the response has been immediate. "Since we opened, the first day was steady. But all of a sudden the second and third day were crazy. We had to keep up with all this demand."
Amongst the fervor, some dishes have proven more popular than others.
"The tuna's popular. We serve it rare, glazed with a Cajun soy reduction, sliced atop the rice," Martin says. "People love the mushrooms glazed with balsamic and Asian seasoning [and] Asian Southwestern-style slaw atop that."
Bowls start as low as $13 and, with add-ons for extra protein ($4-$6) or vegetables and toppings ($2-$6), you can really come out with great portion sizes without burning a hole through your wallet. This is high-quality food, and a duo won't pay more than at any other middle-class restaurant in Santa Fe. Two diners could theoretically spend less than $40 for a night out, though with the choice for extra proteins, vegetables, sauces, etc., you could go for a wild splurge, too.
During such times, health safety is obviously paramount, and the Rioses are taking it seriously. After ordering online, customers drive up to Restaurant Martín's parking lot at 526 Galisteo St. Everything is then navigated by text and brought out to the car. It's simple enough, though there are still some logistical hurdles to tackle. Tiny parking lots make much of downtown a difficulty for parking, period, and Build-A-Bowl is no exception. High demand means longer wait times for now, but for a new dining option with a sudden boom in popularity, those growing pains are natural.
Besides, within a minute of eating, the food made up for it. Our household tried the steak with al pastor glaze over the cilantro-lime rice, which proved expertly cooked and flavorfully tender. We also tried the Scottish salmon with sautéed mushrooms over brown rice. The latter was described by my companion as "the best salmon I've ever had." Our land-locked state makes good fish hard to find, but Build-a-Bowl proves Martin is not kidding when he says the ingredients are fresh.
The best part, though, might be that meat-eaters, vegetarians and pescatarians can all find common ground. Still, as Jennifer explains, Build-a-Bowl has its eye on a key kind of customer.
"We're targeting a younger demographic," she says. "We wanted to go for the lowest price point we could. You shouldn't have to be older and have X number of dollars to really eat great food. It was the young locals who placed the earliest orders."
For the moment, Build-a-Bowl is slated to run for a limited 90 days and only operates from Thursday-Sunday, 4-7:30 pm. Jennifer says she and Martin are already looking ahead, though, and if demand keeps up, perhaps there's a brick-and-mortar in the cards.
"Maybe there's a life for this after the pop-up," Jennifer muses. "Maybe we can make this a standalone business."
Martin, meanwhile, is already experimenting with the possibility of more complex chef-curated dishes, like an al pastor glaze served on chicken and shrimp. Trying out a Mexican adobo-style sauce, he says he's fast finding new concoctions he thinks will work.
"It's becoming my favorite,' he says slyly, "but for now, it's just for me."
Follow Build-a-Bowl on Instagram
@santafebuildabowl or order online at santafebuildabowl.square.site