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Santa Fe: The Smell of Pinon, Green Chiles at the Farmers Market, Tapas at La Boca; 11 Reasons to Fall in Love Again

Hollyhocks in never-never land--part of the pervading fantasy of Santa Fe. One writer has described New Mexico's adobe capital as "Tahiti in the desert."

Hollyhocks in never-never land–part of the pervading fantasy of Santa Fe. One
writer has described New Mexico’s adobe capital as “Tahiti in the desert.”

Yes, yes. I know. Too many concho-belt-clad tourists, too much bad Western art, too few parking places downtown.

At least that’s how it was four years ago in Santa Fe. But guess what?

The high desert capital of New Mexico has recaptured its glow. Sidewalks are nearly empty, desirable reservations are a breeze, and even those elusive parking spots aren’t too hard to come by. Blame the faltering economy, but enjoy the slower pace–while it lasts.

Visiting Santa Fe is a little like jumping down the rabbit hole. I’ve come to think of it as America’s never-never land, or as Chris Wilson wrote in The Myth of Santa Fe, “Tahiti in the desert, bathed in rosy sunsets.” The city itself is an adobe fantasy, but the rugged mountains, ultra violet light, and high pitched yipping of the coyotes are all gloriously real. Here are 11 reasons to fall under its spell all over again:

In the summer pinon pine cones ooze fragrant drops of resinous sap. In the fall, the dried cones may yield pinon nuts--or not. Like much in New Mexico, the harvest is unpredictable.

In the summer pinon pine cones ooze fragrant drops of resinous sap. In the fall, the dried cones may yield pinon nuts–or not. Like much in New Mexico, the harvest is unpredictable.

1. The invigorating scent of pinon: There’s no mood elevator like the fragrance of the pinon pine, so breathe deeply–and often. New Mexico’s state tree was ravaged a few years back by the double whammy of a devastating drought and a bark beetle epidemic. Blackened, twisted corpses still litter the landscape, but the survivors are flourishing once again.

Right now branches are bristling with geometric green cones oozing crystal tears of the stickiest sap ever. (Navajos used it to waterproof their hand-woven baskets—OK, I read that in Tony Hillerman’s latest.) It’s the resinous scent of the sap that perfumes the air. Later in the fall, the trees may—or may not—produce delectable pinon nuts. But don’t hold your breath: A popular city map quotes Territorial Governor Lew Wallace as saying, “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere, fails in New Mexico.”

At La Boca, James Campbell Caruso gives Spanish tapas a modern twist, as in slow-roasted pork ribs grilled with harissa bbq sauce.

At La Boca, James Campbell Caruso gives Spanish tapas a modern twist, as in slow-roasted pork ribs grilled with harissa bbq sauce.

2. Modern tapas at La Boca: Crisp white tablecloths, unadorned plaster walls and brick floors create an austerely perfect setting for James Campbell Caruso’s explosively flavorful tapas. A slab of grilled eggplant smothered with melted manchego, brushed with saffron-infused honey, was followed by to-die-for costillas: succulent pork spareribs, slow-roasted until the meat falls away from the bone, slathered with a homemade harissa sauce, a thick, almost fluffy puree of roasted ancho peppers scented with cumin, coriander and smoky Spanish paprika. The bocadilla of the day—chorizo, manchego and membrillo (quince paste) on crusty bread–was a winner, as was the Quinta da Carvalhosa Ardosino ’03 we drank with it all.

La Boca, 72 West Marcy Street, 505/982-3433. www.labocasantafe.com

At the Tuesday Santa Fe farmers market, I followed my nose to these luscious Cresthaven peaches, one of 14 varieties grown by the Levi Valdez family in Velarde.

At the Tuesday Santa Fe farmers market, I followed my nose to these
luscious Cresthaven peaches, one of 14 varieties grown by the Levi Valdez
family in Velarde.

3. Squash blossoms and green chiles at the Tuesday Farmers Market: A fancy new indoor farmers market is rising fast, but why not enjoy the luminous early morning light and gorgeous produce at the outdoor market held on Tuesday behind the old Batan War Museum—excuse me, the new Center for Contemporary Arts? With just 30 vendors, it’s a slower, quieter market than the big blowout held each Saturday in the PERA parking lot. That means you can have a leisurely chat with the farmers who lovingly work small plots of land and drive many miles to bring the fruits of their labor to the city’s foodies.

I filled my basket with exquisitely ripe Cresthaven peaches grown by Levi Valdez in Velarde; plump, freshly cured New Mexican garlic with dirt still clinging to the husks from Jacoma Farms; Khalsa Enterprises’ luscious heirloom tomatoes; full-flavored green chiles, roasted, peeled and dried by Sam Romero in Chimayo. Sweetwood Dairy’s ultra-fresh goat cheese with green chile was perfect for stuffing the golden squash blossoms at a stand across the way. I got halfway home before I remembered a 6-foot long red chile ristra I’d reserved. I went back to pick it up, along with a stack of Joan McDonald’s quirky pot holders: My favorite, “Early Morning Coffee,” depicts a Day of the Dead skeleton getting her caffeine fix.

Tuesday Santa Fe Farmers Market, CCA parking lot, 1050 Old Santa Fe Trail. 505/983-4098. www.santafefarmersmarket.com

4. Early New Mexican paintings at Owings Dewey: Santa Fe is full of forgettable “art,” but this upstairs gallery facing the Plaza has museum-worthy shows of works by the Taos Founders and other American artists. First take a look at what’s new and hot: Right now you can see “Orale!” a show of Luis Tapia’s provocative sculpture. Tapia is a santero, a maker of saints, but pieces like A Slice of American Pie—an 18 foot section of a 1963 Cadillac embellished with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and other icons—offer a pointed commentary on contemporary Hispanic culture.

Then step through the doors of the more traditional galleries for a dazzling look at the 20th century Santa Fe and Taos painters and American modernists who depicted the wild, luminous beauty of the desert landscape. I fell hard for German artist Gustav Bauman’s woodblock prints: Adobe houses, rugged canyons and lilac trees in bloom are rendered in glorious color, in a style that captures the dramatic union of sky and land.

Owings Dewey Fine Art, 76 East San Francisco Street, 505/982-6244. www.owingsdewey.com

At Todos Santos, a gilded box is actually a dark Valrhona chocolate truffle. Coffee and lemon verbena are on the menu as well.

At Todos Santos, a gilded box is actually a dark Valrhona chocolate
truffle. Coffee and lemon verbena are on the menu as well.

5. Chocolate, Historic and Otherwise: Wend your way through the hollyhocks in Sena Plaza to a pale blue door crowned with gnarled branches, red paper lanterns and swooping doves. At Todos Santos (All Saints), you’ll find a surreal wonderland of twinkling lights, Mexican dolls, and jars of fanciful candies. You could go just to revel in the décor, but Hayward Simoneaux’s chocolate is the real draw. The one-time framer is famous for his gold-leafed milagros, dark chocolate amulets of eyes and flaming hearts covered with a thin layer of 24 carat gold. His tiny gilded “gift boxes” are actually dark Valrhona truffles; don’t miss the lemon verbena and rose-scented truffles spiked with red chile.

Todos Santos, 25 E Palace Ave # 31, 505/982-3855.

Do you ever wonder what sort of drinking chocolate Cortez might have quaffed at Montezuma’s court? Wonder no more. At Kakawa Chocolate, located in an adobe house near the Capitol, you can imbibe “historic” elixirs such as Aztec Warrior: The frothy, unsweetened chocolate, thickened with ground almonds, was fruity-tasting, but so bitter that my mouth puckered. Then came a fiery wave of pasilla chiles, and the quieter fragrance of flowers. This may not be your cup of chocolate, but it’s an intriguing counterpoint to the current craze for single origin cacao.

Kakawa Chocolate House, 1050 Paseo de Peralta, 505/982-0388. www.kakawachocolates.com

6. Santos and Rio Grande Textiles at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art:
There are a clutch of good museums in Santa Fe—the Georgia O’Keefe and the Wheelwright come to mind—but I love this small domestic museum for its collection of hand carved New Mexican saints, vibrant Rio Grande blankets and rustic furniture. To see how New Mexicans lived between 1693 and 1821, check out La Casa Delgado, a recreation of a typical colonial home with surprisingly global furnishings–glazed olive jars from Spain, a painted camphor wood travel chest from China or the Philippines—as well as locally crafted items such as simple pine furniture and handspun, vegetable dyed textiles.

If you feel like you could move in, that’s because the museum is actually an adobe house designed by architect John Gaw Meem in the 1930’s. It’s a classic example of the Pueblo Revival Style replicated throughout the city. In the gift shop look for contemporary retablos of San Pascual, the kitchen saint, often depicted with chiles and copper pots, and Renee Zamora’s sinuous wrought iron easels for books or small paintings.

Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, 750 Camino Lejo, 505-982-2226. www.spanishcolonial.org

Colorful Mexican handbags and raffia-tailed chickens throng the window at the Davis Mather Folk Art Gallery.

Colorful Mexican handbags and raffia-tailed chickens throng the window
at the Davis Mather Folk Art Gallery.

7. Whimsical Mexican Handbags from Davis Mather: Don’t you need a new purse? Especially one for $27? Old friends Davis and Christine Mather have an alluring collection in the front window of their tiny folk art shop on Lincoln Avenue. I couldn’t resist a pink and black vinyl satchel displaying fat sacks of chiles from “La Almita.” And no, you can’t have the yellow bag with Hernandez Brothers’ singing and dancing seafood; I bought that one too.

Oh, well. How about a flock of Dareen Herbert’s raffish chickens, or a pair of Oaxacan Day of the Dead bride and groom skeletons? Still can’t decide? Maybe you want to sign up for the Mathers’ fall folk art tour with visits to artists’ studios in and around Oaxaca. Christine is the author of Santa Fe Style, the 1986 book that started the vogue for upscale adobe architecture and chile ristras.

Davis Mather FolK Art Gallery, 141 Lincoln Avenue, 505/983-1660. www.santafefolkartgallery.com

The slow-braised lamb at Aqua Santa is prepared so simply that the delicate flavor of the meat shines through. Raised in Northern New Mexico, the animals graze on yarrow, snowberry and other herbs.

The slow-braised lamb at Aqua Santa is prepared so simply that the
delicate flavor of the meat shines through. Raised in Northern New
Mexico, the animals graze on yarrow, snowberry and other herbs.

8. Braised Shepherd’s Lamb at Aqua Santa: The last time I saw Brian Knox, we were too late for lunch: In consolation, the chef/owner of Aqua Santa generously tucked an enormous loaf of the crustiest, most delicious sourdough bread into my bag. Bliss—even if we were leaving the next day.

I finally had lunch there last week. On a scorching Friday afternoon, the outdoor terrace, shaded by the boughs of a Chinese elm and embraced by an adobe wall, was wonderfully cool. And, despite the restaurant’s stellar reviews, it was nearly empty. Only two other tables were occupied, one by a gaggle of museum trustees, the other by a blond Formula One race driver with husband and long haired dachsund in tow.

Oh, yes. The food. Ask about Shepherd’s lamb and you’ll get a dissertation on the farm where it was raised, the rarity of the heritage breed, and how slow braising is a cooking method “in and of the earth”—a reminder that you really are in locavore central. But all was forgiven with the first bite: The succulent, falling apart meat, braised for 10 to 12 hours, was served virtually unadorned on a bed of sautéed rapini greens. The lamb tasted simply of itself, but with a flavor so delicate that I imagined the flock grazed on fragrant herbs. It was an old fashioned dish, not unlike the traditional flower-sprigged plate on which it came.

There was also an exquisitely fresh piece of poached halibut, prepared so simply that the pure flavor of the fish shone through. The most complex dish, if you can call it that, was a delicious appetizer of crisply roasted baby artichokes, seasoned with a little chile, coarsely chopped, served with a spoonful of creamy burrata. The buttermilk pannacotta topped with raspberries and a pool of bittersweet chocolate was evanescent. We drank a deep dark Nero D’Avola with it all. Inexplicably, the waiter refused to let me take notes on the label after the meal was over.

Aqua Santa, 451 West Alameda, 505/982-6297

9. Stovetop Grill from Santa Fe School of Cooking.
It couldn’t be more basic: For 30 bucks you get a round cast iron grill with wooden handles and a stainless grate that plunks right over your gas burner. Yesterday, while it was pushing 100 outside, I charred sweet red, yellow and orange Bell peppers from our CSA in air conditioned comfort. Then I dry-roasted slender Japanese eggplants, onions, jalapenos and a couple of ripe tomatoes, mixed them all up with olive oil, salt and smoked Spanish paprika—and dinner was served. Future experiments: fresh corn, squash and asparagus.

Santa Fe School of Cooking, 116 West San Francisco Street, 800/982-4688. www.santafeschoolofcooking.com

10. Moroccan Vegetable Stew at Harry’s Road House: Drive by Harry’s at almost any time of day and the parking lot will be jammed higgledly piggedly with SUVs, pickup trucks and the odd Porsche. Unless you like to eat at off hours, just figure that you’ll have to wait your turn. But the people-watching is terrific: wispy, aging hippies, placid civil servants, lots of creative tattoos. Here I saw a young woman with intricate angel wings across her shoulders, bees on her knees and zippered seams up the backs of her calves. Author Hampton Sides got it right when he called Harry’s “a loud taverny sort of place where people gather in a regular sort of way.”

What you get at the roadhouse is haute comfort food with a global spin. A great breakfast in the cheery front “diner” could start with a big mug of foamy latte, then segue to mammoth platters of huevos rancheros or smoked turkey, sweet potato and andouille hash. At night, the flower-filled back garden is the perfect venue for Moroccan vegetable stew, a local favorite composed of butternut squash, carrots, potatoes and green beans spiced with cinnamon, cumin and coriander. It comes with couscous and two knockout salsas: one, a hot New Mexican red chile harissa, the other, a zingy charmula of cilantro, jalapeno and lime.

Harry’s Roadhouse, 96 Old Las Vegas Highway, 505/989- 4629.

11. New Mexican Volumes at Collected Works:
Stock up on Georgia O’Keefe art books, tomes on Pueblo Indian pottery and the mysteries of Tony Hillerman (best read while you’re actually in rhe Land of Enchantment) at this small independent bookstore a block or two from the Plaza. Last week, I stood next to a Navajo gentleman with waist-length hair, perusing the nature section. At the same moment, we both reached for Bird Brains, a respectful look at the intelligence of crows. The regional cookbook section includes Artisan Farming, a loving nod to New Mexican farmers, with recipes for lamb stew with fennel, pinon green beans and raspberry sopapillas.

Collected Works Bookstore, 208 West San Francisco Street, 505/988-4226
. www.collectedworksbookstore.com

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