“We’ve only served dinner for a couple nights,” our server told us as we sat down at downtown organic wine bastion/mini grocery La Mama the other night. “We’re working out some kinks. Thank you for your patience.”
Turns out, he needn’t have mentioned any of that. Yes, it’s true La Mama ( 225 E Marcy St., (505) 780-5626) has thus far been a brunch and lunch spot and, outside of pop-ups with outside vendors over the summer, has only served dinner for about three seconds. And yes, it’s true that our server was contending with the sort of large party that brings a gaggle of kids and then sets about ignoring them while they roll about on the floor. But despite those hurdles—and, he said, customers who still only think of the still-new establishment as a place to linger while sipping wine or coffee—the house that owners Sara Moffett, Jen Turner and Anna Sheffield built provides an adorable and comfortable spot for dinner, and I ate some of the finest food I’ve ever found in Santa Fe.
You’ll walk through the grocery cases to hit the upstairs dining area. Though there are tables downstairs and some nice patio options in the historic home and former Josie’s Casa de Comida come summer, upstairs is darling and cozy. Even with the large party beside us, it never felt cramped. From the romantic lighting and the comfy seating, you’d never know dinner service was new. Plus, the menu dazzles.
Days later, I learned the new chef is one Jordan Isaacson, a guy who has made some waves in Denver and down in Las Cruces at a spot called Grounded Café in recent years. Isaacson was also named a chef ambassador earlier this year by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (it’s basically about promoting New Mexico’s food action from farm/ranch to table and beyond), and his La Mama menu is a concise but brilliant coming together of disparate dishes for discerning palates.
Starter dishes, for example, are full of variety. Would you like something as simple as almonds and olives? That’s on the menu ($8). Chicken liver paté? You bet ($12). You’ll find wild boar meatballs ($14), which we did end up trying with one of our main dishes (more on that in a sec) and a so-called big green salad at $15, which would’ve sounded expensive a few years ago, but now only sounds like a great way to have a huge salad while contending with how inflation exists.
My companion and I began the meal with the fennel soup with Aleppo pepper and fennel pollen, served with warm sourdough from Santa Fe’s Bread Shop ($8); plus a generous bit of polenta and parmesan from the sides menu ($5). Both arrived quickly and piping hot, and both impressed verily. Take the soup, an aromatic dream of tastes and viscosity. Fennel soup should come a little thick, as Isaacson’s did, and the included bread was great for dipping. The polenta was a creamy dream cut nigh-perfectly with the tang and firmness of the parmesan. You can get it as a main with garlic shrimp ($25), but the side is glorious, too.
Choosing our entrees proved a little harder. Isaacson’s select offerings are all enticing in their own ways, particularly the rainbow trout paper fish dish with couscous, fig and Marcona almonds ($27) and the three sisters with acorn squash, smoky beans and pickled corn ($20). For my companion’s part, a simple yet well-executed housemade pasta with a sweet red sauce and wild boar meatballs won the day ($19; add $6 for the meatballs). Red sauce is tricky and can cause heartburn so easily. At La Mama, it had a subtle sweetness that calmed the more acidic elements quite nicely. The wild boar meatballs were also quite excellent, and similarly had sneaky sweet notes. I’m almost certain I detected some of the fennel that was so good in the soup in those meatballs; and I fully concede they might be too gamey for some diners. For us? It worked.
Meanwhile, the $23 sous vide Kurobuta pork shoulder with red chile and roasted veggies served with a lime crema and topped with an almost crunchy cotija fricca (think flash-fried cheese) was too irresistible to pass up. Kurobuta is like the Wagyu of pork, and this dish was so fantastic, it didn’t stand a chance—I devoured it; I demolished it; if I’d had a guitar I might have composed a ballad to it. The lime crema suited the roasted potatoes and the pickled onions beneath the pork so well, and if ever there were a more tender pork shoulder, I’ve ne’er heard the tale. I, meanwhile, will shout it at anyone within ear shot in coming weeks: “TRY THE PORK AT LA MAMA, YOU FOOLS!” I’ll shout. “There’s nary a moment to waste!”
We closed the night with both desserts currently available: a pecan butter chocolate chip cookie with Valrhona chips ($3) and a dark chocolate mousse with tahini and sea salt ($6). The latter was our fave, though really more like a ganache in its thickness. Other writers have likened it to a pot de creme, and this seems apt, though this is far from a complaint and more like a notable facet. Did we use some of our cookie to scoop up the mousse? Yup. And it ruled.
Given La Mama’s dedication to working with local sources like Bread Shop, Taos Honey Co., Beck & Bulow and many more, it’s hardly surprising the dishes would taste so fresh and clean. Still, there’s creativity and execution afoot that makes it a standout on a street that already has a number of standout joints. If this is the first crack at dinner service, too, I can hardly wait to see how it evolves, and the oenophiles out there will find a lot to try with the wine menu.