Following a late afternoon film screening at Violet Crown Cinema over the weekend, a companion and I found ourselves peckish at the tricky hour of the day where you have to decide whether you’re going to contend with a larger meal now and run the risk of late night snacking, or if you’re going to do the snacking and possibly spoil your appetite. Of course, by the time we’d driven to the Southside and back downtown doing the “I dunno, where do you wanna go?” dance repeatedly, we finally just landed someplace like, “Forget this, let’s just go someplace that’s both open and where we don’t frequent.”
Enter Santa Fe Bar & Grill (187 Paseo de Peralta, (505) 982-3033), that stalwart eatery at the DeVargas Center that has somehow lived on my if-we-can’t-work-out-anything-else list for far too long. Oh, don’t get me wrong—I won’t now nor have I ever said the place is bad, but my memories of it are tied up in quick coffees with my grandmother, a fish taco from a million years ago that, despite my roommate at the time’s insistence, did not change my life; and, of course, sometimes a dessert post-movie when DeVargas still had a cinema which, believe it or not, played artsier films. That’s a long sentence and a long way of coming to my point: Maybe it’s because I’d just seen a film, maybe it’s because I had great guacamole there once, who knows, but Santa Fe Bar & Grill entered my mind, and that’s where we went. Deal with it, America.
First off, if you can find yourself at the restaurant at roughly 5 pm, that’s sort of the dream. No, I’m not so old that I generally do my evening meals so early, but being hungry and wanting to discuss the movie, to find a warm spot pre-dinner rush felt novel somehow. The ol’ Bar & Grill has a capital-G GORGEOUS patio, too, though this was in the midst of the days-long (and much-loved by this writer) gloom, so service was relegated to the great indoors, as it likely will be for the duration of winter. No matter, however, as we wound up with one of those brilliant waiters who never hovers but never leaves you wanting. Even better, she answered my slew of rapid-fire questions: “Have you tried the pork chop special? Is it always available? What’s it come with? What would you do?” She never once faltered and should be celebrated.
“Pork chop it is,” I said, “and they’ll have the mahi-mahi fish tacos with the coleslaw and black beans.”
These proved wise orders, as the fish tacos ($13.50) reportedly sang with buttery, flaky goodness. Mahi-mahi is an interesting bit of fish, not so firm as some types of salmon—which can feel tough and rubbery when cooked even slightly too long. In taco form, the mahi-mahi was slightly crisp on the outside, but tender and juicy on the inside. With the corn tortilla from local mainstay Alicia’s Tortilleria, plus some cabbage and tomatillo salsa, my companion reported a tropical-esque win, and something she would order again. Strangely, though, they’ve never sampled lobster and weren’t about to start, and since that means neither they nor I sampled the available lobster tacos, I can’t speak to their quality. Next time, maybe. Next time.
I, meanwhile, chose to continue my ongoing pork quest with the first pork chop I’ve eaten in years ($18.95). I’ve got feelings tangled up in pork chops that relate to my childhood and how my mother made them (she made them PERFECTLY, for the record), meaning I carry high hopes in the chop department. At Santa Fe Bar & Grill, our server told me this specific pork chop—Frenched, as it were, which is a bone-in technique, and cooked with olive oil, thyme, ginger and garlic—pops up on the menu regularly and is one of her favorites. I was glad to heed her words: Not only did the bright ginger and earthy garlic meld together in a tangy marriage of complementary flavors, whoever was working that grill knew what they were doing. Pork chops, too, face their fair share of rubbery issues when in lesser hands, but at the Santa Fe Bar & Grill, they almost melt in your mouth. Served with a few stalks of excellently seasoned asparagus and a small but smart number of roasted potatoes, it felt only slightly better than mom used to make. This, friends, was comfort food at its finest, and it came with a side of mango-apple chutney that was divine. I did not eat too much, even if I did clear the plate.
Finally, as we’d done the very important work of going to the movies earlier, we deserved a little treat from the dessert menu; two, actually, plus coffee. While the coffee ($3) was only OK, I consoled myself with the mud pie ($7.95), a combo of coffee ice cream and piñon with an Oreo crust and slathered in chocolate. My companion, however, won the dessert-off by ordering the hot cajeta sundae ($6.50). Cajeta is one of Mexico’s takes on caramel made with goat’s milk for a decidedly richer and more nuanced flavor than that of the plain old cow caramel. For days after the meal, they described how good that sundae was, and have since dug up some recipes for creating their own cajeta. I’m not about to stop them. I am, however, upgrading the Santa Fe Bar & Grill from afterthought to place-I’d-regularly-visit. Even now, as I think about that pork chop, I’m verklempt.