Restaurant Guide

Now We’re Cooking

Meet five Santa Fe chefs who can dish it out

Everyone in Santa Fe has their own personal list of favorite restaurants, the ones you recommend to visiting friends or praise online or visit all the time.

Often, these lists are organized on a scale from “quick bite” to “favorite opulent fine dining experience” because—generally speaking—most diners focus on menus and value rather than the people behind the meals. We maintain it’s worth knowing who’s inventing your favorite empanada or soup; plating your Taiwanese braised pork belly; or boxing your blue crab sunomono temaki.

Thus, along with an extensive restaurant and bar directory, SFR’s annual restaurant guide also showcases notable local food pros entering their prime eras. They range in scope and style: an imported chef looking to establish new twists on a known brand; a fusion fanatic embracing the coming-together of regional Asian cuisines; the man behind a popular and ever-promising lunch counter; a baker with a knack for experimentation and a new smash burger so popular you have to act fast to get one when it pops up.

Wherever you eat, remember when the food arrives at your table, a person behind the scenes put thought, time and love into its creation. Now let’s eat!

Jordan Isaacson

Jordan Isaacson

Though our initial introduction to chef Jordan Isaacson last November was at downtown natural wine bar, micro-grocery and restaurant La Mama, he’s since moved to the empanada-forward Cafecito in the Baca Street Railyard, where, he says, he plans to both dial in existing dishes while conjuring up new ones.

An inaugural chef ambassador with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Taste the Tradition program highlighting New Mexico food and agriculture, Issacson has only called New Mexico home since 2020, when the pandemic spurred him and his wife to leave Chicago for Las Cruces, where her family lives.

While there, Isaacson says, he helped open elevated-pizza restaurant Grounded, but he longed to live somewhere he could continue his love of snowboarding. Cut to just last year, and the couple moved north to Santa Fe for Isaacson’s La Mama job—not bad for a guy who’d been kicked out of business school at Montana State University some years earlier.

Today, at Cafecito, Isaacson says he doesn’t plan to mess with the dishes its patrons know and love, but diners can expect plenty of surprises—including the possible return of dinner service that phased out during the days of COVID-19. (ADV)

Name: Jordan Isaacson

Restaurant: Cafecito (922 Shoofly St., (505) 310-0089)

Type of Cuisine: Argentinian and modern American

Number of Years in the Biz: 16

Background: Art Institute of Chicago; Denver

A-Ha Moment: “I grew up with a very narrow palate—I’m not from the family that cooked, but when I moved out of my parents’ house and started to try new things, I thought, ‘Woah. Food is cool.’ I was working at some chain, like Baja Fresh, years later, and I remember it clearly: I was working with my hands, making food, making people happy. I realized…it’s one of the most selfless things you can do.”

Gotta Eat: “We’re not there yet, but we’re going to get there soon at Cafecito…I’m hoping to do deep dives into Argentinian foods, maybe even visit Argentina to learn more.”

Wish You’d Try: “The empanada we’ve been running right now is mushrooms, and they’re from Full Circle Farm down in Las Cruces. They have paprika, cheese, those mushrooms, a lot of onions—they’re super good.”

Erica Tai

Erica Tai

After three years of working at Open Kitchen, a local catering business with specialized menus ranging from “Vietnamese Hot Pot” to “Pacific Rim meets Southwest,” Executive Chef Erica Tai and Chef-Owner Hue-Chan Karels opened a new restaurant specializing in Asian cuisine in June last year: Alkemē.

Tai found her love for cooking when she entered Santa Fe Community College’s culinary arts program in 2013 and while studying nutrition at the University of New Mexico. She tells SFR her and Karels’ concept for Alkemē's menu is based on both of their heritages.

“I’m Taiwanese, but I’ve lived in Hawaii and I’ve lived here in New Mexico for 10 or 11 years now,” Tai says. “So, our heritage means our personal background, not just, ‘I’m Taiwanese, we’re just going to do Taiwanese cuisine.’”

Alkemē's menu blends Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Korean and Hawaiian cuisines, and includes three tasting menus themed around meat, seafood and vegan food, in addition to the regular a la carte menu.

“You don’t get this food anywhere else in Santa Fe. It’s very unique, and to be able to play on the spin of Asian food, you have to know the Asian food first. I grew up eating this kind of stuff, so I can really know the roots of it and play around with it. It’s very creative,” Tai tells SFR. “It’s not just about this, but the entire hospitality—attention to details, to the guests and also a sustainable environment for people who work here. It’s an entire ecosystem that we try to keep.” (MC)

Name: Erica Tai

Restaurant: Alkemē (235 Don Gaspar Ave., (505) 982-9704)

Type of Cuisine: Asian cuisine with Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Korean and Hawaiian influences

Number of Years in the Biz: 8

Background: Santa Fe Community College Culinary Arts Program, University of New Mexico College of Education & Human Sciences

A-Ha Moment: “There were a couple mentors that were at SFCC—they made cooking interesting, and I was lucky enough to have those mentors. Plus the colleagues who were really trying to get into this business, and who were really serious about their craft. That entire vibe really just sucked me in. These people are supportive and really trying to help guide you into this path, because you have something.”

Gotta Eat: “We have a couple signature dishes people seem to really like. The bao buns capture the entirety of the cultures. It originated in China…but that’s also from Taiwanese culture. On the inside, we have our Taiwanese braised pork belly, housemade Vietnamese pickles and there’s also pineapple chutney, which kinda encapsulates the Hawaiian side of things. On the bottom line, it’s very delicious.”

Wish You’d Try: “Even if you’re not vegan, I would totally recommend trying the vegan [tasting] menu and some of our gluten free items, like the cauliflower à la nage and the mushroom skewers with hoisin bourbon sauce—something I eat after shifts sometimes. I want to show people vegan food can also be very delicious, when sometimes you don’t even notice.”

Jeff Ozawa

Jeff Ozawa

After owners Jacob Brenner and Mayme Berman moved their beloved bakery/sandwich heaven The Bread Shop across Lena Street from its original location a couple years back, Jeff Ozawa and his partner Jaimie Lewis took over the old space with Ozu, a restaurant and micro-grocery that embodies the simple and minimalistic—yet high-quality—approach to food for which Japanese cuisine is so well-known.

Ozawa grew up in southern New Jersey with a father from Osaka, Japan. Dad made a point to prepare home-cooked meals that came from the heart, Ozawa says, to pass on the cooking traditions he’d grown up alongside. This stuck with Ozawa when he left home for college, and even after, when he began exploring the depths of his Japanese heritage through food.

After school, Ozawa moved to Los Angeles, where he kicked off catering business Gorumando as well as kitchen and lifestyle brand Tenzo; the seedling for Ozu was planted. Today you’ll find Ozawa and Lewis manning the counter at Ozu and serving up blue crab handrolls, rice balls and so much more. And they’re not done by a longshot. Ozawa says they plan to expand when possible, and there might just be a beer and wine license on the horizon, or maybe expanded seating to accommodate the Ozu faithful. For now, however, it’s easy to embrace the intimate setting while enjoying your bento box. (AF)

Name: Jeff Ozawa

Restaurant: Ozu (1708 Lena St., Ste 101,

Type of Cuisine: Japanese

Number of Years in the Biz: 10

Background: “I don’t come from a traditional cooking background. I never went to school for it; I’ve worked at a few small restaurants over the years, but it was kind of just from growing up Japanese.”

A-Ha Moment: “I grew up cooking Japanese food, and my dad was a pretty good cook. I started bit by bit trying to pick up that simple home cooking. I became obsessed with capturing all these little secrets and details and all that…knowledge. I had a desire to capture old-era cooking and tastes.”

Gotta Eat: “The best way to try our food is to try one of the bento boxes. It has a little bit of everything, and it has that home-cooked, handmade quality. The other thing that’s really popular is the blue crab sunomono temaki. We do these things that are really simple, but the ingredients are good, it’s good crab.”

Wish You’d Try: “The one dish I feel really passionate about is the sake ochazuke. It was something that I thought no one would order, but it has become pretty popular in the colder months. It’s kind of like porridge. It’s kind of a deep cut.”

Sarah Keats

Sarah Keats

Philadelphia native Sarah Keats lived many places before moving to Santa Fe for the sun. And while she says she’s always been a foodie—noting she started scrambling her own eggs at 4 years old alongside her mother, who is a “great cook”—her introduction to the pop-up chef lifestyle began last May.

Keats never intended to go into the burger business, but when owners from Marcy Street restaurant La Mama sampled her smash burgers at a private party last year, they asked her to make some more for the restaurant’s grand opening event. Their reaction and “peer pressure,” Keats says, provided an entry into the foodservice world. Keats kicked off One Trick Pony Burger with a small griddle and only one menu item—the smash burger, no substitutions!—and has since gained a loyal following at pop-ups at El Rey Court; if you can get there before she sells out, of course.

Keats’ culinary endeavor uses 100% grass-fed beef to create an Oklahoma style smash burger with American cheese, special sauce, frizzled onions and shredded lettuce on a brioche bun. Her affinity for high quality beef relates to climate change, and Keats works with rancher Andrew Geer from Lazy BG Farms in Dilia near Moriarty—and, Keats says, she plans to add beef from more ranches as she upscales the business.

To make those upscaling dreams come true, Keats is now focused on acquiring a food trailer and hopes she can have a custom-made one ready for pop-ups this summer. For now, catch her at the High Road Fest—an all-day market and musical performance event—on the lawn at El Rey Court on May 4 for “late night burgers.” In true Santa Fe style, that means after 7 pm. (EC)

Name: Sarah Keats

Restaurant: One Trick Pony Burger (@onetrickponyburger on Instagram)

Type of Cuisine: American

Number of Years in the Biz: < 1 year

Background: Self-taught

A-Ha Moment: “I ghost-wrote a cookbook a few years ago and in the cookbook I did a version of a burger that just really stood out and I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna keep working on this.’”

Gotta Eat: “My goal for the future of Pony Burger is I want to open a dive bar that has a Pony Burger pop-up, maybe twice a week in the backyard or something like that, but I don’t want to run a whole kitchen. I don’t want a whole menu. It’s always just going to be the burger. We’re going to add fries. That’s the only other thing we’re ever going to do.”

Wish You’d Try: “I think the sauce is maybe what sets it apart, but it’s also the cooking style, which is a ball of meat on a hot flat-top grill. You have shaved onions that go on top and then you smash it into the super hot griddle and you get what’s called maillard caramelization and lacing around the edges. So that gets you a nice juicy-in-the-middle crispy-on-the-outside feel. I’m staunchly anti-flame broiler. Flame broiling is a really great way to disrespect a piece of meat and I’m not about it.”

Kate Holland

Kate Holland

Devoted baker and Baked & Brew co-owner Kate Holland says she thought she wanted to go the fine-dining route after wrapping up culinary school at the Art Institute in Atlanta, but after working for restaurants like Solbar and chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in Napa Valley, she realized something important: “I don’t think I’m built for the fast-paced, screaming, fire…y’know, ‘gotta get that plate out!’ kind of restaurant. I love the bakery lifestyle.”

As luck would have it, so did her fellow baker and Baked & Brew co-owner Nicole Appels, and together they opened their business in a former gas station at the corner of Cerrillos Road and Baca Street just seven months ago.

Baked & Brew has been an immediate hit, even if they close on weekends to have time for personal lives. For Holland, it’s all about the bake and the things that go with that, be it rising early, having a focus, enjoying alone time and, perhaps most importantly, the look on customers’ faces when they sample her bread.

But it’s not all bread and treats, Holland notes. Baked & Brew’s small but mighty breakfast and brunch menu has plenty to choose from, including, Holland says, “the only real grits in Santa Fe—and I’m from Georgia, so you can trust that.” It’s also the only business in town to serve coffee from Arizona’s Passport Coffee & Tea, which is, btw, delicious.

Up next? “We’re going to start opening on Saturdays in June,” Holland says, “and if I can get into an offsite space for baking? I’d like to do more bread more regularly. We’re also going to set up some outdoor seating, and we’ve got artist Simona Rael coming in to do a mural outside.”

Don’t forget, too, that Baked & Brew is home to the cruffin—a combination muffin and croissant that’s so good, they can barely keep them on the shelves. (ADV)

Name: Kate Holland

Restaurant: Baked & Brew (1310 Cerrillos Road, (505) 954-1346)

Type of Cuisine: Bakery

Number of Years in the Biz: 15 years

Background: Art Institute of Atlanta

A-Ha Moment: “I’ve always wanted to do this. In high-school, I was in culinary classes. My mom made me go to ‘real’ school first—business at Auburn University—but I knew I wanted to go to culinary school after that.”

Gotta Eat: “I would say our breakfast sandwich. You can build it from bread and egg and meat options. And we’re building our menu because this has kind of become more of a café than just a bakery. Oh! And we’re going to add ice cream.”

Wish You’d Try: “Our soups. My mom does the soups, they’re different every day—we call her the ‘soupervisor.’ I really think people should try them.”

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