In recent weeks, scads of Santa Feans have been flocking to the old Zia Diner on Guadalupe Street for a series of soft pop-up lunches and dinners. The pop-ups have attracted the likes of local food journalists, chefs such as The Kitchen Table’s Andrea Abedi—even George RR Martin has attended once or twice. Some locals remember the spot as the old Café Sonder (a short-lived restaurant from the folks behind the Plaza Café), but to longtimers, it will always be the Zia—or, perhaps, it would have been until chef Dakota Weiss had her way with the place.
The aforementioned flocks have been drawn to the siren call of Weiss’s new multi-concept micro foodhall, Capital Coal Neighborhood Eatery, and the early anecdotal reviews all say the same: Santa Fe might just need the newest restaurant from Weiss and her life/business partner Rich Becker, the same duo behind Santa Fe’s Catch Poke and Albuquerque’s Notorious P.O.K.E., among others.
In one fell swoop, Weiss and Becker are changing how the city thinks about concept restaurants, adding energy to the Guadalupe Street corridor and filling multiple holes in local dining experiences with numerous ideas, all deployed at once. They’re doling it all out in a bright and airy space in the heart of downtown that has sat dormant since the pandemic.Visitors will now find artworks featuring pop culture icons engaging with food culture, pithy neon signs celebrating pizza or demanding food and, in the back, a sports lounge-esque area with a big screen television. The first indication that things have changed happens just inside the door, where patrons are greeted by a portrait of the late Anthony Bourdain flipping them off.
“But if they don’t get that,” Weiss tells SFR, “maybe they don’t get what we’re trying to do.”
Capital Coal is set to include five main concepts developed in tandem by Weiss and Becker: The French dip-focused Frenchie’s Dips and Tots (of which an Albuquerque location already exists at the Sawmill Market); the spicy fried chicken-based Richie B’s Hot Chicken; the more health-conscious Santa Fe Salad Company; the Korean BBQ-inspired/Mexican-American fusion of Kimchi’s Korean BBQ; and, for the sweet tooth set, Sweetjars, an enticing dessert entry that finds Weiss strutting her creative stuff for treats served in Mason jars—even if, as she says, she, “capital-H hates doing pastry.”
In addition, Capital Coal will feature various popcorn medlies from Dakota’s Pop Parlor—including a phenomenal melange of peanut butter toffee, mini marshmallows, roasted peanuts and caramelized white chocolate—plus other sweet and savory combos. If all goes well, the restaurant will also offer a charcuterie and Champagne micro-concept, though Weiss says they’ll do the charcuterie with or without the bubbly. Visitors might also notice how mini-boutique The Artisan’s Bottega by local entrepreneur MaryBeth Bartlett takes up a chunk of the lobby, which is honestly kind of fun.
The future remains wide open, however, Weiss says, and it looks promising.
Boutiques and enticing foods aside, it doesn’t hurt that Weiss is a magnetic and impossibly charming presence. Perhaps you know her from her appearance on season 9 of The Food Network’s Top Chef? Or as a judge from the Roku exclusive competition show Morimoto’s Sushi Master? Maybe you know her as one of the founders behind California-based poke chain Sweetfin, which practically jumpstarted America’s still-burgeoning love of poke (a diced raw fish dish most often served in a bowl with rice and various veggies) when it opened in 2015? Maybe you know her more recently as the former executive chef of restaurateur Quinn Stephenson’s enduringly popular Coyote Café (where Weiss still serves in a consultancy role), or perhaps you’ve wandered into Catch Poke on Marcy Street to sample a bowl, only to find Weiss behind the counter with her electric blue hair, many tattoos and endlessly friendly answers to questions about sauces and fish and rice.
Weiss has been a stalwart presence in food since the mid-’90s. She’s worked for some of the finest chefs on the planet, too—including Bruno Menard, who has three (!!!) Michelin stars—and in kitchens for eateries in Ritz Carlton restaurants in Georgia, Pennsylvania, California, Florida and Shanghai. On her own, she’s an accomplished powerhouse; with Becker in her corner, she’s downright unstoppable.
“And the funny thing is that, as a kid, I was literally the pickiest eater ever,” Weiss tells SFR. “Like, I literally only ate chicken, pasta and hamburgers. That was it. Vegetables were, you know, kind of rough. And even though I ate hamburgers, I wouldn’t eat a steak. Because it was weird.”
This isn’t a statement you’d expect from an influential chef, but then, Weiss’ path hasn’t been particularly traditional. Some are born with cooking and foodservice in their blood; Weiss had no clue she’d gravitate to kitchens when her family relocated from Southern California to Santa Fe in 1988, just as she was beginning middle school. That’s a terrible time to move since the kids are all cliqued up by that point in their educational careers, Weiss says. She faced violence regularly, too, which certainly didn’t help how little she liked school to begin with.
“I hated sitting in the classrooms,” she says. “I hated quizzes, hated taking tests. The only thing I really liked about school was PE, recess. Oh, and my little elementary school in California had this student-run ice cream shop, and I went bananas running that. It was like having your own little truck, right? It was like hustling selling Fudgesicles. I think that’s maybe where my whole serving people thing comes from.”
After middle school, Weiss attended both St. Michael’s and Santa Fe High Schools. She was booted from both, she says, “because they don’t like it when you don’t show up to class.” By 1992, she followed her older sister to college at Las Cruces’ New Mexico State University. That didn’t stick, either, however, and she dropped out by ‘94.
“Eventually my mom was like, ‘Get your ass in gear and figure out what the fuck you want to do, because I’m tired of wasting my time and money,’” Weiss says. “And then…yeah, culinary school was it.”
Weiss briefly considered a career in business for the “kick-ass lady suits,” but first followed a hunch and enrolled in a two-year program at the now-defunct Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1995. Something clicked—she found her thing. For the first time ever, classrooms didn’t seem so bad. And homework? Well, it consisted of developing recipes and mastering the classics; eating; and bouncing ideas off her fellow fledgling chefs.
“You know the difference between regular and culinary school?” Weiss queries. “You’re not sitting there all day.”
Culinary school also taught Weiss to expand her palate beyond boxed mac and cheese and burgers. Once she understood the science and the alchemy, the world of food opened up to her as it never had. She even tried a steak for the first time. Following culinary school, Weiss returned briefly to Santa Fe, where she took a kitchen job at Coyote Café. There she’d become friends with Stephenson, an up-and-coming busser who today owns that restaurant and Santacafé and is co-owner of Geronimo, but she was ultimately destined for opportunities in distant places.
She made her way to Atlanta’s Ritz Carlton circa 2003, where she worked under Menard.
“I came on as a line cook, and slowly he saw my passion,” Weiss explains. “I would get there hours before my shift started just to see what was happening. And we did everything from scratch—like, if you had croutons on your station, you were baking the bread for those croutons.”
Weiss worked her way up the ladder and was sent to work in Ritz Carlton kitchens in Sarasota and Philadelphia. She even spent time in Shanghai thanks to her Southwestern-style cooking chops. Eventually, the company called her back to the states to work at the Marina Del Rey Ritz Carlton in Santa Monica, California.
“I first found out about poke there,” Weiss says. “One of the chefs was from Hawaii, and we didn’t put it on the menu, but he’d make it for family meal.”
Then, in 2006, Weiss took over the executive chef job at the Sunset Tower Hotel in Hollywood.
“That was a big move, and I don’t know if I was necessarily ready for it,” she says, “but I did it anyway.”
Her first big league job, while stressful and demanding, prepared her for other executive positions at similar hotel eateries, like the Hotel Shangri-La and the W Hotel, both in Los Angeles.
In 2010, she was a contestant on Bravos’ Top Chef.
“When people ask me about that, I’m like…yeah, that’ll haunt you for the rest of your fucking life,” she says.
Still, the show made Weiss a known commodity, which came in handy when she needed partners to start the Sweetfin operation in 2014. Things moved quickly, she says, and the first location opened in Santa Monica in 2015. The company expanded to numerous other locations over the next several years, which is how Weiss met Becker in 2018. He’s the type of studied hospitality guy you see on television shows like The Bear—a sort of stoic figure with training from the legendary Houston’s/Hillstone Restaurant Group, of which Weiss says, “if you see it on the resumé, you don’t need to ask any other questions—you just hire them.”
Becker came to Sweetfin after a position on the team that opened the first Shake Shack restaurants in Los Angeles, and though he and Weiss would eventually become enmeshed in each other’s lives, the first meeting did not go well.
“I had to go in and teach him to cut fish, and he swears I came in and slammed down my knife bag, but I don’t personally recall this situation,” Weiss says with a laugh.
“She had to find something for me to do, so she gave me the kale,” Becker adds. “The worst job. The crap job.”
Nevertheless, working in close proximity led to flirtation via text and an eventual date initiated by Weiss.
“She was the boss,” Becker says with a sly smile, “so I wasn’t going to ask her.”
They’ve been inseparable since, through Weiss leaving Sweetfin (she officially sold her stake just last year); the move back to New Mexico after her mother received a terminal cancer diagnosis and when Coyote Café owner Stephenson needed a new executive chef in 2021; when Weiss received a breast cancer diagnosis of her own on April 12 that same year, also Becker’s birthday.
“I think that’s what really solidified that he’s my guy,” Weiss explains. “I got the phone call on his birthday and then I called him, like, ‘Hey, babe, happy birthday. I have cancer.’”
At the time, Weiss had been dabbling in competitive bodybuilding; nothing major, she says, but she’d placed in a competition and had plans for more.
“I got fifth place in my first competition, so I was pretty proud of myself,” she says. “And when [I was] first getting into heavy lifting, I had this really hard class, and afterward I take a shower, and I’m standing naked in the mirror kind of flexing, super sore. I’m feeling around my muscles, but when I get around my boob, I find this lump I don’t remember being there. It kind of just snowballed from there.”
Weiss entered treatment soon after, including chemo, medication and a single mastectomy. Her mother died in early 2022. Today however, Weiss is officially in remission, though it’s something she’ll need to keep an eye on and medicate for years to come.
“But I feel like I’m at the point where I want to give back more, so I volunteer in cancer chemo rooms at Christus St. Vincent and Nexus Health,” she says. “I feel like because I’ve been through the journey, I can just sit there and talk to someone who wants to talk.”
That she can make time at all seems miraculous. Weiss scaled back from her executive chef job at Coyote Café last year, but retains a consultacy position there.
“I think she’s very talented and it was exciting to get her back at the restaurant,” owner Stephenson says of her return. “But she says she wants to start a new place, what can you do but support her? I love working with Dakota, and I know she’ll do well because she’s so talented. I have a huge amount of respect for her palate; I didn’t want to lose the relationship. We’re grateful to still have her input.”
Becker. meanwhile, tends to the day-to-day with their Albuquerque restaurants, and Catch Poke is now operated under the watchful eye of Weiss-vetted sous chef Giselle Cobos. Capital Coal takes up much of Weiss and Becker’s time these days, or at least it will until they can prove its multiple concepts, get the place running at peak efficiency and, hopefully, get their license to sell beer and wine.
The building in which Capital Coal resides sits 297 feet away from New Mexico School for the Arts—a full 3 feet short of the permitted distance required by state law when it comes to serving booze near schools. Neither Weiss nor Becker believes it will be an issue getting that license, (after all, Café Sonder most definitely served up booze), but it ain’t over until it’s over. Still, the building is rife with history: the restaurant name is a nod to the site of the former Capital Coal yard, which served the trains coming through town. That officially puts it on the National Register of Historic Places, which is interesting enough but makes for challenges, such as not being able to paint a logo on the side of the building. Becker’s looking into hologram and projection tech to work around that, and the space certainly has its quirks, but the bones are there. And no obstacle is too large.
“Y’know, the whole reality is that I went through cancer and fought it, and it changes your outlook on on life,” Weiss says. “Life is short, everybody says that; do what you want, right? Do what you love. I love fancy food. I love fine dining, y’know, with the tweezers, placing everything perfectly. But there’s a time and a place, and the time is not as often as when you want something simple and fast and familiar. We didn’t know how or when or whatever, but we’re opening. It’s wild.”
Weiss and Becker are set to unleash all of their core concepts at once for the first time this week, though without beer and wine and charcuterie just yet. Here’s the rundown of what’ll be available when Capital Coal hits full power. Do note that the particulars are subject to change, but we’ve yet to sample anything that wasn’t fantastic.
Richie B’s Hot Chicken
“I first had [hot chicken] during my Shake Shack days at Howlin’ Ray’s in LA,” Becker says. “We all loved it, and I was blown away by the spices—twice a week, we’d get it.” Since kicking off the Capital Coal plan, Becker has been tinkering with his own blend of spices, though it’s way more of a Southern thing than a New Mexico spiciness. Straight up? It’s way spicier than you’d expect—WAY—but the subtle sweetness from the brown sugar in Becker’s blend adds such wonderful depth and, frankly, it’s kind of addictive despite the mouth-burnin’. Worth it. We did not try sides like braised collard greens ($3.50), Southern baked mac ‘n’ cheese ($4.50) or sweet potato waffle fries ($4.50), but we did nearly pass out when Becker mentioned he’d like to add chicken and waffles to the menu.
Kimchi’s Korean BBQ
“We kind of based it off the Kogi truck in LA, which is this Korean/Mexican/American fusion,” Weiss explains. “Roy Choi is an amazing chef, and as much as I’d love to have the table grills and do a traditional Korean BBQ thing, that’s obviously not doable here.”
Even so, Weiss and Becker are culling from well-known and lesser-known Korean ingredients and methods for this one, and you’ll find the fusion-y tacodilla on the menu at just $7.
Frenchie’s Dips & Tots
“Everybody asks [if we make our own tater tots], and I wonder when have you ever had handmade tots?” Weiss notes, adding that such a time consuming endeavor would require some sort of tot-making apparatus, which sadly doesn’t exist. Still, the loaded tots with queso, bacon and green chile ($8.50) are so delicious, you won’t even care where they came from.
“It’s about the cleanliness of the oil when you cook them,” Weiss advises.
Oh, and those sawndwiches? A revelation. SFR sampled the classic, the hatch green chile and the turkey dips ($16, $16.50 and $16.60 respectively), and each was served on brilliantly soft bread that soaked up the house made aus jus without losing its shape. The turkey dip even comes with a vegetarian au jus bursting with shiitake mushrooms in case you skipped the beef on purpose. Best French dips of all time, full stop.
Santa Fe Salad Company
Weiss and Becker are not out to reinvent the salad wheel, but are instead trying to give people something familiar, done well. SFR sampled a simple mixed salad with cranberries, apples and candied pecans ($13), but Becker says one customer described the Caesar with anchovy tapenade and a parmesan black pepper vinaigrette as, “the best they ever had.” In the case of the mixed, the greens were fresh, the pecans were a delight and the cranberries offered a chewy little counterpoint to the crisp of the apple. That apple balsamic vinaigrette dressing was also quite flavorful and refreshing.
Listen very carefully, because if the first item SFR sampled from Capital Coal’s Sweetjars is any indication, there’s basically nothing we wouldn’t do to get more. We tried one with a trio of mousses consisting of white chocolate, lemon and a borderline whipped and creamy orange-flavored layer; a s’mores variety with marshmallow fluff, creamy chocolate and graham cracker crumbles; and a key lime tres leches number that looked gorgeous and wowed with a flavorful and citrusy tartness. Though simple, these might be some of the most beautiful and delicious desserts we’ve ever tasted, and each was well worth the $6 price point—you also get to keep the jar!
Champagne & Charcuterie Bar
It’s just what it sounds like, and both Weiss and Becker say they’ll still pursue charcuterie in the unlikely event they don’t get that liquor license. They’re out to keep it upscale, too, though haven’t announced the particulars of what will comprise their boards.
Capital Coal Pop-Up: 4 pm-8 pm Thursday, Nov. 2; 11 am-8 pm Friday Nov. 3 and Saturday, Nov. 4. Capital Coal Neighborhood Eatery 326 S Guadalupe St. (505) 772-0192