Watching La Boca’s chef James Campbell Caruso navigate the early days of COVID-19 was like a masterclass in keeping your cool. Not only did Caruso manage to stay afloat through PPP loans, holding onto his staff in the process, he was an early adopter of special city permits that allowed restaurants to take over public parking spots with plein aire dining options, which proved to be a godsend in shakier times.
Now that things have calmed some, Caruso says, he’ll finally have a chance to approach a new project that has been percolating for some time: La Boca Bodega (145 Lincoln Ave., (505) 982-3433), a combination specialty grocery/coffee shop and lunch counter with an emphasis on Spanish foods and goods to be managed by Caruso’s daughter, Emma, who brings significant foodservice experience.
“We’ve been wanting to do this a long time,” Caruso tells me during a recent visit. “People always ask us where they can get the items we use in the restaurant—where we get them—and the fact is, there’s not really anyplace in New Mexico to just get those things.”
Originally, Caruso explains, he’d hoped to include retail options inside La Boca, or perhaps at his satellite space and wine tasting room, formerly known as Taberna, around the back of his main dining room in the space that previously—and bear with me, non-old-school Santa Feans—housed Carlos’ Gospel Café.
“These spaces are small, though,” Caruso says. “There was never enough space to do it justice, so we waited.”
That wait was worth it, as even in its early stages, La Boca Bodega looks promising. It’s a cozy space, true, but during our visit, Caruso showed off myriad items already on the shelf, including fine anchovies from Spanish company Don Bocarte, jamon and other cured meats from Fermín, specialty olives and olive oils, paprikas, paella pans, ceramics and more to come. Caruso uses many of the products in his dishes at La Boca; others he just wants people to try for themselves. And at the center of it all, a combination lunch/coffee counter with special blends from local company Aroma crafted specifically for Caruso, as well as a still in-progress menu featuring sandwiches on bread developed by his wife, Leslie.
As of now, Caruso says it’s likely the sandwiches won’t be what one might call cheap, but they, like most things at the new shop, are meant to be upscale. And they taste like it. I sampled a fresh jamon sandwich, for example, that I still find myself thinking about well over a week later. Between the almost melty meat and the sturdy crunch and crumb of the bread, I discovered an array of textures so satisfying I’d likely buy one at any price now and then. Caruso says they could run about $15, but that’s not set in stone just yet. Still, he says, “This is a premium business.”
And it shows. In addition to the counter and its likely robust takeaway options, Caruso hopes to host cooking demos and workshops, including, possibly, pastry and breadmaking classes with his wife. Still, for those who want to grab a quick bite or some hard-to-find item to zhush up whatever dish, La Boca Bodega could be a game-changer.
“A lot of people want to grab something and don’t always have an hour,” Caruso tells SFR. “Having a waiter, a wine list...that’s great, but when you can get something great and just take it with you? That’s good.”
“I think, too, there are a lot of restaurants stepping away from pre-packaged foods,” adds manager Emma. “It’s because of the experience of focusing more on the ingredients—and highlighting the backgrounds of those ingredients, how they get incorporated.”
Caruso says that by the time La Boca Bodega opens on Dec. 9, even more items will be in stock. He also envisions adding a rotating menu whereby he might experiment with ingredients sold in the store, and there is much talk of charcuterie boards or party specials—and who even knows what else. Ideally, Caruso wants to foster a community mom and pop feel, only with access to fine foods.
“I want people to come in here and taste this stuff and talk to somebody,” he says. “Also, to me, when you shop, you should always have something to eat, kind of mercado style—some coffee, a really cool mineral water. We’ve always been inspired by these things, by ingredients. I like that we can have a nice representation of what is traditionally Spanish when we as New Mexicans are so proud of our Spanish roots.”