The sun sets behind the El Rey Court on Cerillos Road while workers from Tender Fire Kitchen scurry around nearby, firing pizzas, handing out boxes and generally adding a professional if laid-back vibe to the late-spring goings on. Not gonna lie, Santa Fe—it felt almost magical. You can't beat Santa Fe's weather this time of year, and Tender Fire founder Ben Crosky's pizzas only made things better.
Crosky is a relative newcomer to Santa Fe, having moved here pre-COVID from the Bay Area because when he visited some years back, he says, the town's vibe "felt like an invitation."
Still, Crosky is aware of the Californian influx to Santa Fe and how such things affect housing, gentrification, etc., so he wanted to give something back. That something is Tender Fire Kitchen. Previously, Crosky worked on California farms and for a yoga-travel company based in Oakland, and while traveling the world leading workshops, the importance of responsibly sourced food and quality ingredients became evermore apparent. That's the core ethos of Tender Fire's pies, along with a proprietary sourdough crust, the starter for which Crosky developed himself.
"I didn't know I was going to [start a pizza business], but it was important to me [that the starter] was born in New Mexico," he says.
And it sings. Even a simple 12-inch margherita pie ($15) from Tender Fire is outrageously good thanks to its quality ingredients, and I haven't even tried the vegan or vegetarian varieties, or some of the other rotating options including sausage, pepperoni and/or beet pesto. Still, the star of the show is Crosky's sourdough crust. It's like an experience begging to be savored in all of its chewy, flavorful glory.
Tender Fire doesn't operate every day. Instead, the menu and orders go up on Tuesdays for pickup Thursday-Sunday, 6-9 pm. The system really works, according to Crosky, as workers can track each order and almost completely eliminate any waste. This might be the same methodology used if and when Tender Fire Kitchen goes brick-and-mortar. Crosky says he's enjoyed the freedom of the El Rey, and that he'll only take over a space if and when he can do it right.
"We're just trying to establish ourselves and get to know our systems and community," he notes. "We do have plans, at least for our own kitchen—but maybe also our own farm."
That commitment is about offering a quality product, but also about nourishment.
"Sometimes with food it's hard to know exactly why you're enjoying something," Crosky tells SFR, "but when you have good ingredients, your body is telling you…you're happy, you feel good."
Meanwhile, over at Back Road Pizza, owner and certified pizza nerd Piper Kapin unveiled her restaurant's newest offering: a Detroit-style pizza she first learned about at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas a couple years back.
"The last couple years I'd been, I'd seen these pizzas, and there was chatter in the industry," Kapin says. "They've obviously been known in Detroit a long time, but they've been rolling into the pizza world and becoming more known."
What's the difference between a Detroit-style pizza and the type for which Back Road is already known? Depth, for one thing. These aren't Chicago-style pies, but they're certainly thick. The dough also undergoes a 48-hour fermentation period, and it takes roughly 15-to-17 minutes to bake as opposed to the 8-10 minutes of a regular Back Road pizza. As it bakes, the edges caramelize and get crispy, and the flavors hiding in those edges is everything.
Kapin also says that during the R&D process through which she devised her own dough recipe, she discovered Detroit-style pizzas require a special pan and are made with a specific type of cheese called Wisconsin brick. Invented in 1877 by Swiss-American cheese champ John Jossi, the original recipe was sold to Kraft, but there are reportedly still small dairies making Wisconsin brick in the old ways. It's a tasty one, too—with a subtle and almost fruity maturity that unlocks more complex flavors as you eat. Detroit-style also hides ingredients beneath the cheese and comes with two lines of red sauce drizzled across the top in an homage to its Motor City roots—like tire tracks.
Sourcing the pans and cheese wasn't easy, Kapin says, but diners can now order Detroit-style once a week. At first blush, the order-Sunday-for-pickup-Wednesday thing seems complicated, but with four varieties to choose from (classic cheese, margherita, pepperoni and green chile), I opted for a large half-marg/half chile ($26, though the base classic cheese pie runs $21 without toppings), it's nice having a pizza to anticipate. Oh, and if you're curious, the green chile is so flavorful it's almost unbeliveable. Kapin theorizes it's about the ingredients not mingling with the sauce.Either way, as a former East Coaster, shesays she's pleased.
"I'm from Boston, and pizza back east is a huge deal," she says. "It's like the way chile is here—the way people cook it, the regional differences, the culture."