You’ve heard of the Enchanted Circle around Northern New Mexico? Very scenic. But here’s something for people who’d rather eat their way around the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
BY SUSAN SPANO
No sane person would turn down the chance to dine at a sophisticated Santa Fe restaurant. Showcasing the distinctive new cuisine of the Southwest, they rank among the best in the country.
Sometimes, though, many of us would rather eat at more modest places that are beloved by locals, tucked out of the way along our beautiful highways and byways. One tour de table featuring such eateries starts in Las Vegas, about 60 miles northeast of Santa Fe, and ends someplace in Albuquerque, depending on where Wolf ‘n’ Swallow, a cool craft charcuterie place, pops up next.
The historic Castaneda Hotel by the train tracks in Las Vegas has a burnished old bar where a wide range of New Mexico types stop, from professors at the town’s Highlands University to cowboys from the ranch who come in to stock up at Tractor Supply. The menu is at once homey and sophisticated because of Sean Sinclair, the award-winning chef who also started the celebrated Legal Tender in Lamy. When he took over the kitchen at the Castaneda a few years back, he raised the culinary bar in Vegas by a mile. He also gave free meals to some 750 firefighters and evacuees a day at the height of last year’s devastating Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire.
During happy hour (3:00–5:00 p.m. Wednesday–Sunday) Sinclair’s food is as good as ever but particularly easy on the wallet. The menu changes periodically. Think sommelier-selected wine and craft beer, tasty green chile stew, crispy onion rings, and knock-out Harvey Smashburgers, each under $10. There’s no charge at all for the friends you make at the bar or hide away from in the bathroom.
Cleveland is about 35 miles north of Las Vegas along the Mora River Valley and State Road 518. Old Spanish land-grant country with cattle spreads on the endless plains to the east. It’s easy to miss Teresa’s Tamales because it looks like a shack. But no, it’s a palace where the king is hand-tied tamale, made under her mother’s tutelage since the eponymous Teresa Olivas was a girl. She started cooking for the wide world around 1990, enlisted family members to help, and the rest is local history. Finally last fall Teresa decided to sell the restaurant, fortunately to folks with longtime roots in Mora County, Amanda and Erika Regensberg and Matilda Chavez. They have pledged to retain Teresa’s original recipes while adding pastries and sweets.
You can eat in the spare front room of the restaurant, at tables out front, or take your food on the road in a plastic box. Just grab a lot of napkins because there’s nothing messier than smothered tamales, steak and/or chicken enchiladas, and BBQ pork sandwiches.
By the time you get to Taos on 518, you’ll have traversed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and, doubtless, started thinking about something else to eat, preferably sweet. So, it’s a good thing that Taos Cow, home of some of the best ice cream in the Southwest, is opening a new shop a little south of town.
Taos was an ice cream desert until a couple of entrepreneurs, including Jamie Leeson, opened the first Taos Cow in 1993 in Arroyo Seco on the way to Taos Ski Basin. It still does big business in pre-ski bagel and burrito breakfasts, Reubens, beans and rice, and green chile stew. But, honestly, the point is ice cream made from such New Mexican delicacies as Las Cruces pecans, Alamogordo pistachios, and organic lavender from Abiquiu. When Leeson mixes them, the result is a delirium of flavors: Mexican chocolate with chocolate chunks and cinnamon; pistachio and white chocolate chunks; Coco Loco featuring coconut, piñon nuts, and more chocolate chunks.
Next stop: the Blue Heron Brewery in Embudo southwest of Taos on State Road 68 and one of the most dramatic stretches of the Río Grande in New Mexico. It makes sense to work up a thirst (and appetite) by going for a hike or rafting trip in nearby Río Grande del Norte National Monument before hanging out at Blue Heron, where Scottish Ale, Ladybug IPA, and Raspberry Rye are favorites on tap. Kristin Hennelly began brewing beer in 2009 and opened this second branch of the taproom (the first is in Española) just last year. Her dad, Patrick Johnson, and uncle, Michael Johnson, started award-winning La Chiripada Winery in nearby Dixon, so there’s no running out of its signature Río Embudo Red either.
Hennelly keeps Embudo’s menu simple, starring thin-crusted, artisan-crafted pizzas made the way they should be—in an oven lined with ceramic tiles. Choices include Margherita, pepperoni, sausage, and so on, plus bread sticks with marinara sauce, caprese salad, and a tasty antipasto plate.
Finally, for something completely different: Wolf ‘n’ Swallow, a pop-up restaurant in Albuquerque solely devoted to artisanal charcuterie. Ryan Houlihan, who also goes by the name Chef Houla, opened about a year ago after moving to New Mexico from New Orleans. He has worked in restaurants since he was 14 years old and someday wants a place of his own. For now, he focuses on catering and bringing his special hand-crafted charcuterie boards to bars in the Albuquerque area; on Saturday nights he’s usually at Still Spirits, a stylish downtown drinking spot.
Houlihan learned how to can, preserve, and cure from his grandmother, though he puts his own twists on the old recipes, like pickling pineapples and cherries, a combo people say tastes like pineapple upside-down cake. He makes bread and relishes, and his meats are usually from local farms. Only the cheese, seafood, and dried fruit are out-sourced.
Charcuterie used to mean cured meat and paté, but Houlihan has gone way beyond the old French formula, offering vegan and vegetarian boards along with the popular Half & Half, featuring two cured meats and two cheeses, along with home-baked bread, relishes, and pickles.
Wolf ‘n’ Swallow puts a nice finale on the Insatiable Circle, but rest assured that there are many other surprising, delicious, off-the-beaten-plate places to find in New Mexico. The only thing you need is an appetite.