Z is for Zounds!

Aztec Street eatery Zacatlán is more than worth the splurge

Full disclosure? We went kind of nutty at Zacatlán (317 Aztec St., (505) 780-5174). Every dish sounded better than the last, dessert included, and so rarely do I get the chance to just go full-tilt that when a dining companion and I made up our minds to sample as many items as we could, I felt a form of culinary freedom more generally reserved for the rich. For a brief and shining evening I eschewed my normal propensity for mid-priced burritos or drive-thru tacos and entered an era of indulgence. And while I most certainly understand such occasions are rare, I regret nothing. Somebody give Zacatlán chef and owner Eduardo Rodriguez a James Beard Award or something; somebody tell him I love him.

Rodriguez, who hails from the restaurant’s namesake region in Mexico, opened the downtown Santa Fe institution first as a brunch restaurant in 2020, and it has become a rather hot commodity. Part of the reason the restaurant resounds as a success story lies in how it emerged from COVID restrictions relatively unscathed. I even dubbed its daytime menu the Best. Brunch. Ever. in 2021 after sampling Rodriguez’s huevos rancheros and Southwestern surf and turf eggs Benedict (kudos to the housemade chips and guac, served warm, too).

The temptation to return gnawed on me in the way only a truly fine dining establishment can. I’d pop in for brunch from time to time to enjoy the world-class service and ambiance (which is a little weird as the Aztec Street location once housed a coffee shop in which I whiled away many high and/or drunk hours as a young wastrel). And now, I can finally say I’ve had dinner at Zacatlán. Though its menu wound up a little more pricy than I can usually swing, it was worth every penny and then some. Rodriguez might be a magician—or, at the very least, one of the more creative and innovative chefs working in Santa Fe right now. Do not sleep on this man’s food, whatever you do.

We began the evening with a special dish of chilled, raw oysters topped with sliced scallops and served with a spicy accoutrement similar to a minimal pico de gallo ($26 for six). Perhaps I’m a pleb, and I overheard numerous fellow diners espousing the dish’s excellence, but as a texture fanatic, I struggled with the squishier aspects of this one. This came much to the delight of my companion, who buckled down and gnoshed as many as possible on their own. I was a little more focused on our other starters, anyway: a burrata salad with cherry heirloom tomatoes, pesto and chicarron prosciutto ($22), plus the dreamy pork belly carnitas with a strawberry rhubarb tamal and frise and apple salad served over a date-based mole ($22). If one still has many years to live, is it too early to call something the dish of a lifetime? Rodriguez’s knack for the creative was on full display here. The exterior crisp/internal tenderness of the pork belly mingled so brilliantly with the subtly sweet notes of strawberry and dates—it tasted like the strangest combination of home and abject newness. Dates seem to be appearing on more local menus these days, and this is good news for us all—perhaps we can get beyond the idea that they’re an old-person fruit that exists for digestive purposes and little else. In Rodriguez’s hands, they downright sang. As starters go, this dish ranked among the most ingenious I’ve seen on a Santa Fe menu; it could easily have served as a main course. The burrata salad, meanwhile, was as fresh as they come and a veritable cacophony of flavors and textures. You want a firm cherry tomato; you want a burrata that practically spills across the plate; the salty bite of the prosciutto added just the right savory notes, too.

For mains, we kept the pork train rolling with cochinita pibil, another mole dish with a tamal de olla (a traditionally pan-cooked number) and escabeche most likely created with the very pork that stars in the item. This one came with a number of house made tortillas and quickly became an assemble-your-own-taco affair. On first bite, I hadn’t thought Rodriguez could outdo the pork belly, but the more substantial cut of meat eaten in tandem with the darker, more traditional mole kicked off one of those restaurant moments I’ll surely elicit for years to come in arguments about who ate the best thing where. A subtle dusting of Chihuahua cheese offered tangier notes as well, a fine counterpoint to the earthy mole flavors. I’m honestly salivating right now just writing about it. My companion selected the lamb shank barbacoa served with herby green rice, refried black beans and mole coloradito. Bursting with flavors, the sauce’s complexity highlighted the rich lamb well, and while you wouldn’t think refried black beans could stand out in any particular way, at Zacatlán, they did.

Despite having consumed more than enough for the evening, we continued bravely on toward dessert, splitting a brioche bread pudding tamal with saffron and sweet corn ice cream ($10), as well as a simpler dish of churros with cajeta and strawberries. Those in search of a less obvious or even less sweet dessert would do well to think of the bread pudding. Its flavorful ice cream topper seems odd at first but grows on you. The churros, suggested by a friend/co-worker, were downright excellent, particularly with the included gooey cajeta. You want a churro to be warm and almost squishy inside, but crispy and almost grainy on the outside. And Zacatlán delivered.

In fact, the whole meal delivered in a way that somehow lived up to our outrageous expectations. Everything at Zacatlán shone brighter than seems possible in retrospect, from the post-dinner coffee and pitch-perfect service from our waiter, Karla (whom I’m naming because she was just so damn on top of things). It’s hard for me to suggest more expensive meals as a man with very few chances to try them myself. When it comes to chef Rodriguez and Zacatlán (which was, by the way, a Beard semi-finalist in 2022 for best new restaurant), however...well, just do whatever you can to get there.

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