The news came as a shock to El Chile Toreado co-owner Berenice Medina.
“It’s beyond me that we’re even in the realm of these other restaurants,” she tells SFR over the phone after learning the James Beard Foundation had named the food truck she operates with her father on Early Street as a semi-finalist nominee in its prestigious annual awards. “We’re still just a little stand, so it’s surprising, but I feel like it’s been the hardest three years of our lives, just as humans and as a business, so having this year is very hopeful for us. We’re out here in 20 degree weather, and things are paying off.”
Generally regarded as the Oscars of food-dom, the foundation has handed out the accolades since 1991. Just last year, Sazón’s chef Fernando Olea picked up the Best Chef: Southwest award, and The Compound’s Mark Kiffin won the same honor in 2005. In all, five New Mexico eateries and the people behind them have advanced to the the semi-final round of nominations for 2023.
New Mexico chefs and restaurants appearing in the Best Chef: Southwest category include two from Santa Fe. Chef Berenice and Luis Medina are joined by chef David Sellers at his new downtown spot Horno. Andrea Meyer of Taos eatery, The Love Apple; recent Edible Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown winner Basit Gauba of Albuquerque’s Tikka Spice; and Navajo Nation chef Justin Pioche also made the list.
It has been a bit of a slow burn for El Chile Toreado, opened by Berenice’s father, Luis. The Medinas have been in business in some form or another for decades, including a small cart on the Plaza, the stand outside Big Joe True Value Hardware, a spot on Cordova Road and, today, its more permanent digs just off Cerrillos Road.
Medina, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, tells SFR she hopes to add a catering component to El Chile Toreado’s business model this year, a plan that has been in the works for roughly five years. Additionally, she’s toying with adding new menu items.
“We’re finally strong enough in all areas to do this,” she says.
“We feel incredibly blessed that we’re on this journey and that we’ve been on this journey for 20 years now—coming to this moment now makes us feel so thankful for everybody who has supported us for so long,” Berenice says. “It’s so gratifying to see that we have become a family with the people who join us here in Santa Fe and the culinary world. I feel blessed to be considered. We’re very thankful.”
Our best advice? Try the distinctive spicy green sauce with jalapeños and cilantro. The rest of the ingredients are a closely kept family secret, but how well that sauce goes with almost everything is not.
Meanwhile, just a short distance way, Horno chef Sellers reacts to the news.
“It’s totally unexpected,” he tells SFR while, he says, in the midst of marinating meat for tomorrow’s service at the Marcy Street restaurant. “I got a message from [Compound chef] Mark Kiffin this morning on Instagram, but I didn’t realize it was coming out.”
Sellers is no stranger to the Beard nomination; he was named in the semi-finals before for both Santacafé and Amavi in 2006 and 2007, respectively. He won neither award, he notes, but says it’s an honor to be considered—and that the increased visibility will be good for Horno.
“Obviously it’s validating on some level that what you’re doing is being appreciated, but it’s three things really,” Sellers continues. “It’s not just me, it’s the whole team that really makes something like this possible. People come in to try the food and to have an experience, and it’s a group effort that makes that possible; it’s super-validating and nice to be appreciated on a high level; and I think it’s cool that there’s this...in the past, [the awards] were more geared toward ultra-fine dining, and you can see clearly in the stuff that’s nominated in New Mexico that there’s a shift away from that.”
The announcement comes at a fortuitous time for Sellers and Horno. Over the last two weeks, the restaurant has been closed for renovations, but it reopens tomorrow, Jan. 26, and will no doubt find itself with new fans. Additionally, Sellers says, he’s been working on updates to his offerings.
“I’ve probably changed about half the menu, even some of the classics that people might be upset about. But it’s about keeping it fresh,” he explains. “There’s a lot of new stuff to see. You’ve just gotta keep it fresh. We have a lot of locals who come in a lot, so we wanted to mix it up.”
Sellers is staying tight-lipped on what those changes might be, adding that you’ll just have to pop by and try them for yourself.
As for the awards, the finalists will be announced this March 29 with the final awards ceremony slated for June 5 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.