Some days it’s hard to not miss Bert’s Burger Bowl on Guadalupe Street. Sometimes it’s hard to not miss Taco Fundacion, which took over the space.
But just recently, I walked into that familiar old building to discover a new restaurant, and the food was so good that I went back the next day to try something else. I loved that, too. Sometimes we all win one.
I speak of Santa Fe Bees (235 N Guadalupe St., (505) 954-1008), our fair city’s newest downtown eatery and its combination of New Mexican, Mexican, American and Salvadorian cuisines. The brainchild of brothers Dago and Jorge Melara and chef Cruz Guerra, Santa Fe Bees works so well in that spot, in fact, that it almost feels a pity it didn’t flare into existence until now. Still, better late than never—and you need to try this place ASAP.
The Melara brothers hail from El Salvador but have called the States home for decades. Their oldest brother Jesus had lived in Santa Fe for some time when Dago came along in 2005. Then, a few years later, Jorge joined them.
“Life was really hard down there,” Dago tells SFR of El Salvador. “I was going to school, going into college to become a biologist, but the violence was too much; gang members would come up to me every day asking for money at gunpoint—it was not a good environment.”
Upon landing in Santa Fe, Dago went to work at Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill, where he became close with longtime owner “Bumble Bee Bob” Weil. When Jorge arrived in Santa Fe, he went to work at the same restaurant, and together they rose through the ranks to do a little bit of everything, from point-of-sale and management to cooking, cleaning—you name it. Weil died in 2021, however, which proved a major turning point for the Melaras.
“He was like my American dad,” Dago tells SFR. “He was my mentor, and he always treated Jorge and me as his kids. That was a big hit for us, especially since our own dad passed away in El Salvador a few months before, and we couldn’t go down to see him.”
With Weil gone, things changed at Bumble Bee’s, according to Dago, and both he and Jorge were dismissed earlier this year. The story might be tragic if it didn’t continue there, but continue it did.
“It was actually our older brother who was telling Jorge and I to open a business,” Dago says. “He was pushing us to start.”
So began Santa Fe Bees. The name is both a nod to Dago’s roots as a would-be biologist who grew up on a farm and always loved bees, and as a tribute to the brothers’ relationship with Weil. The Melaras’ menu is also a complete banger. Guerra, for reference, counts restaurants such as Tortilla Flats and Tomasita’s on his resume, while Dago explains that the idea is to offer up a varied combination of things for all palates. Thus, you’ll find anything from enchiladas and burgers to burritos, mix and match tacos, salads, sandwiches and more.
“Sometimes when you go eat with a group of people, one person wants nachos, one person wants a burger, one person wants enchiladas, so the idea is to have a bit of everything,” Dago adds.
Of course, choosing can be challenging with so many enticing options. During our recent visit, a companion and I struggled to pick just one dish apiece, so we settled on a range of items, including chips and guac to start ($9), mahi mahi fish tacos ($17), carne asada tacos with salsa negra ($16) and the blue flautas, a chicken dish served in fried blue corn tortillas and smothered in red chile ($15.99). In every case, the dishes were winners, from the subtly spicy bite of the appetizer guacamole to the deep tang of the salsa negra in the asada tacos. If we’d had the foresight to mix and match, we might’ve thrown a chicken or shrimp taco into the mix, but the expertly cooked beef was packed with so much flavor that it softened the blow.
The coleslaw in the fish tacos worked well in creamy counterbalance to the firmness of the fish, though the star of the meal was absolutely the flautas. Santa Fe Bees’ red chile is a marvel that all at once tastes like home while hinting at the Melaras’ Central American roots. Is it possible for a chile sauce to have an almost fruity flavor? This one did, and there was enough left over after we obliterated the flautas to mix in with the side of rice and pinto beans that came with it. Frankly, I’d happily pick up a side of rice and beans and red from Santa Fe Bees, take it home and throw it all together with some fried eggs.
The following day, we returned to sample the burritos, specifically the Santa Fe Bee Burrito. With images of the asada still dancing in my head from the day before, I figured it had to be good in burrito form with sauteed bell peppers and onion, plus avocado, salsa negra and crema salvadoreña—a cousin to sour cream that’s altogether thicker and tangier. My companion chose the same item, only with chicken, and at $11 respectively (add $3 for more meat, $1.50 for extra veggies), they felt like a steal. In retrospect, I wish I’d ordered the Supreme burrito with rice and beans inside, but consider me a sucker for that crema now, especially in tandem with beef. Best of all? Santa Fe Bees has only been open since August, and the Melaras are bound to have other ideas and dishes in mind.
“Always,” Dago says, “we always wanted to have our own place.”
Thank goodness they made it.