A Feast for the Senses

Liu Liu Liu’s Asian fusion delights make for the best new ­culinary experience in ­ Santa Fe

Any Angeleno knows that some of the most memorable and extraordinary dining experiences in Los Angeles often happen in nondescript strip malls. At Liu Liu Liu (1722 St. Michael’s Drive, Suite F, (505) 428-0589), owners Cameron Markham and Elizabeth Blankstein are counting on Santa Feans to embrace the same mindset.

Markham and Blankstein’s creation might have only opened in an unassuming spot next to ABC Drivers Ed in the Food King parking lot on St. Michael’s Drive last summer, but the kitchen serves up a delectable combination of Taiwanese, New Mexican, French and Californian cuisines that can confidently take on any of Santa Fe’s downtown staples. While that’s not their intent, as Markham tells me, noting that, “we aren’t here to compete with the classics that are amazing at what they do,” his new 10-table spot is a most welcome addition to the local high-end dining scene.

Markham is a fifth-generation New Mexican, and Blankstein grew up in Taiwan before her family relocated to Los Angeles. Both spent their careers working for some of the most notable Michelin star chefs in LA, and the two met at Salt Air in Venice’s trendy Abbot Kinney district (that restaurant, sadly, closed in 2019). After working other industry jobs throughout Southern California, they came together and were on their way to getting married when COVID changed everything. Instead of a lavish ceremony, Markham and Blankstein put their wedding cash toward a return to New Mexico—and opening Liu Liu Liu.

After proceeding through the mood-setting black drapes covering the storefront, Edgar, the manager, warmly greets my wife and me while acting as our server for the evening. Markham and Blankstein want to celebrate their staff by including them while developing recipes, and Edgar, from El Salvador, used his spice knowledge to help with the goat entree ($66). An Indigenous team member also inspired sopaipillas served alongside chicken liver mousse and taro honey ($18).

Both Markham and Blankstein have roots as sommeliers, but instead of starting with the wine list, Liu Liu Liu offers multiple water options. While mineral water is standard in Europe, having different choices is a reasonably new idea in American dining, thanks to infamous water sommelier Martin Riese, with whom Markham trained to hone the menu. We select Saint Geron ($18), a French sparkling water that offers middle-of-the-road mineral content.

As far as wine, Markham and Blankstein’s expertise is on full display, with the rotating menu laid out so even the most novice drinker can find something while those looking for more complex vintages might discover their new favorite label. We start with a velvety 2015 LAN Rioja ($15/glass) from Spain, before touring to the north Italian border with a 2019 Manni Nossing Müller Thurgau ($16/glass) and, my personal favorite, a refreshing verdicchio by La Marca Di San Michele ($16/glass).

Additionally, Liu Liu Liu purchases all of its produce from the Santa Fe Farmers Market, and the freshness is on full display with the black hummus ($14), which skirts the traditional Mediterranean style for a somehow sweeter and more savory take. Accompanied by in-season vegetables including kohlrabi, calabash, heirloom Spanish black radish, Thai eggplant and Indian bitter melons then dashed with salt and lemon juice, it works well in contrast with a dish featuring satisfyingly crisp Persian cucumbers ($12) served with yellow squash, tossed in garlic, sesame oil and, one of Blankstein’s favorites, Gochujang, a spicy chili paste that gives the dish its well-placed kick. The burrata ($25) is served on a bed of charred mesquite radicchio, rare yellow dragon fruit and the brightest kumquats I’ve tasted outside of Santa Barbara. What heaven is this?

While the menu is a vast fusion of what inspires Markham and Blankstein, the common theme is Taipei’s night markets, which Blankstein recalls with a sparkle in her eye. For starters, we order the Bean Curd ($13), a traditional offering from the island’s street scene. Accompanied by carrots, cucumber, charred peanuts and topped with cilantro, the noodles are tossed in sesame oil and are refreshingly cool with excellent bounce. Other market staples include popcorn chicken painted with fried Thai basil and Périgord black truffle ($42), and a delicious artichoke appetizer which Blankstein braises in traditional LuWei broth served with carrot and Korean radish ($18). There’s the Beef Soup ($30), a traditional family recipe that Blankstein learned from her mother, and that comes in a trough-sized bowl big enough to share with a few friends, and swordfish ($40) served on a chayote mash with beet then topped with a creamy pernod velouté and dehydrated lily flower. The icing on the cake comes when Blankstein completes the dish with absinthe essence, which breathes new life into the swordfish.

For vegetarians, the trip is worth it alone for silky mapo tofu ($24), served with green beans and a radiantly floral green Sichuan sauce that explodes on the tongue while numbing the pallet. If there can be a red and green chile war in New Mexico, the same applies to Sichuan, and I am firmly on Team Green after years of only trying reds.

Liu Liu Liu’s approach, Markham says, is to be ”restrained and delicate, yet approachable,” and its owners have built a trendy black and gold atmosphere to ply their modern take on Taiwanese food in a way that never feels intimidating. Oh, and if you’re a fan, look out for Blood Sausage, their new restaurant and beer garden in Albuquerque—which is slated to have an ‘80s horror theme—opening sometime in March.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.