Santa Fe’s respect for history and its confluence of cultures has created a travel haven that harnesses its motto as "The City Different" to create a place to enjoy the opera, outdoors, spas, visual arts, and food, not just as sustenance, but food that is an art unto itself. In a city that has about 70,000 people, there are more than 330 restaurants, not to mention the abundance of markets, shops, grocers, and farm stands.
Once the crossroads of such important pathways as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, The Santa Fe Trail, and Route 66, Santa Fe is now a great arts, outdoors, and cuisine destination on its own.
The Daily Meal spent a nonstop weekend experiencing the tastes, aromas, feel, and look of all things edible in Santa Fe. Here’s an itinerary with scrumptious stops along the way, from adobe architecture to museums to the great outdoors.
Evening: There is a Rail Runner Express commuter train that will take you directly to Santa Fe from the airport in Albuquerque, but for those who drive, it will take about an hour. To add a scenic byway to the trip, take Route 14 North, known as the Turquoise Trail, which only adds a few minutes onto the trip but affords the opportunity to see rugged hills lined with piñon trees, old turquoise mines, and dried riverbeds called arroyos.
At 7,000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe has a higher altitude than Denver, so be sure to stay hydrated. To help with that hydration, stop at the funky town of Madrid (pronounced MAD rid), home of a rollicking, sprawling roadhouse bar called The Mine Shaft Tavern. The whole setup has the air of a movie set — movies like Wild Hogs and Cowboys and Aliens have been filmed in the tavern’s performance stage, museum, and abandoned rail and mine equipment. The Mine Shaft features New Mexican Roadhouse food and locally influenced drinks. The menu has green chile crabcakes with a chipotle Dijonnaise sauce, and Wagyu burgers farmed at the Lone Mountain Cattle Company ranch, located two miles south of Madrid.
At the convergence of The Camino Real, which dates back to 1598 and extends 1,600 miles south to Mexico City, and the 1821 Santa Fe Trail, which extends to Missouri, is The Plaza and the center of Santa Fe, flanked by a sea of low-slung adobe-styled buildings that appear frozen in time. Also at the end of the trail is La Fonda Hotel. Built in 1922, La Fonda is steeped in Southwestern history. It was run by hospitality pioneer Fred Harvey, who created the first restaurant chain in America, as a flagship "Harvey House." Once home to chef Konrad Allgaier, an early promoter of Southwestern cuisine who Americanized such dishes as chile rellenos and huevos rancheros, La Fonda’s restaurant, La Plazuela, has recently been renovated with a sunny Spanish-courtyard look. The menu features guacamole hand-made tableside with fresh avocados and house tortilla soup laced with lime tortilla chips and asadero cheese.
Morning: Get an early start to visit one of the best farmers’ markets in North America. Also open on Tuesdays in the summer, The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, in the Railyard District, south of Paseo de Peralta, is open until noon with more than 100 vendors lined up along the rail tracks and in a pavilion. Here, vendors sell fresh roasted chiles, fresh breads, and game meats from elk to bison. At the north end of the food bazaar is the farm stand of Matt Romero of Romero Farms from nearby Dixon, N.M. Romero started out as an executive chef and his sprawling array of produce is punctuated by Romero himself standing at the forefront of market twirling the drum of his blazing chile roaster and shouting like a carnival barker: "Chiles… five varieties today… local organic, not like the commercial farms in south New Mexico." Chiles are a religion in Santa Fe, and Romero is one of many preachers. Besides the classic green and red poblanos and other fresh produce like lavender cauliflower, Romero has taken on special growing commission from local chefs.
Afternoon: After the farmers’ market closes, Saturday afternoon is the perfect time to take in the flavors of Downtown Santa Fe and its epicenter, The Plaza. On the north side of The Plaza is the historic Palace of the Governors with its traditional-styled portal, a covered walkway. This portal is packed with pueblos selling arts and crafts, including turquoise bracelets and rings. The Plaza itself features more vendors selling arts and crafts, and entertainment and food carts selling carnitas and popcorn.
There are several arcades, alleys, and street shops throughout downtown Santa Fe selling many food-related items. Oleaceae (at La Fonda on the Old Santa Fe Trail) specializes in imported olive oils with various flavorings like blood orange and Tuscan herb, balsamic vinegars like ripe fig and blackberry ginger, and a wide range of natural sea salts.
Next door, Cutlery of Santa Fe has been catering to caterers, home chefs, and restaurateurs for more than 35 years. Browse around the shop for an array of cookware and condiments. Also, nearby is candy maker Señor Murphy. Señor Murphy has been making chocolates and candies for more than 40 years, including a dark chile pistachio bark.
To further spice up your time in Santa Fe, there are food tours, challenging cooking classes, and cooking demonstrations at the Santa Fe School of Cooking and the newly opened Santa Fe Culinary Academy, which will soon feature a full culinary program, a student restaurant, and its own rooftop garden.
For lunch, make room for the sunny and airy Il Piatto. Run by chef Matt Yohalem, Il Piatto focuses on preparing farmhouse kitchen Italian fare. Yohalem, a veteran of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, puts an emphasis on seasonal cooking and local produce, which has inspired a satellite farmers’ market for the neighborhood that he sets up on his front doorstep on market afternoons.
"It creates a whole scene here, tasting pears and apples and hand-picking products, two or three chefs arguing who gets the best eggplant, local people stopping by, it really incorporates this food into everybody’s life into a Santa Fe style," said Yohalem to The Daily Meal. Yohalem uses these resources to create dishes like red chile-basted duckling with grilled Japanese eggplant, blue corn polenta, and stone fruit.
Evening: If you are lucky enough to visit during the summer, take the opportunity to experience the Santa Fe Opera House. Even if you don’t know the difference between Rigoletto and rigatoni, the opera’s open-air, and the covered setting in the rolling hills outside Santa Fe is stunning. Plus, forget your stereotypical stodgy opera-goers. These musical fans are known to tailgate before performances, dining on spectacular sunsets and picnic meals that can be provided on site. Bon Appétit's kiosk in the parking area has a range of entrées, from a spicy beef carne asada to pan-seared salmon. There is also an open-air cantina serving dinner, wine, and dessert over opera discussions.
Saturday night is probably the best night to get your fix of down-home local Santa Fean cuisine at Tomasita’s, owned by the Maryol family that also operates Atrisco and the local breakfast and lunch institution Tia Sophia’s near The Plaza. Tomasita’s is in the Railyard District, across from a dozen looming gargantuan railcars and engines, some bearing the legendary logo of "Topeka, Atchison and Santa Fe." The parking lot features a roaster and chiles for sale. Inside the restaurant, the menu features those same chiles on an array of dishes like enchiladas, tamales, and burritos, Also served are sopaipillas, light and puffy bread pockets that can be used to sop up rice, beans, and chile sauce or can be drizzled with honey for dessert.
Morning: For an eclectic brunch there is Café Pasqual’s which is home to two galleries that feature local artists. The menu lists more than 100 organic ingredients in dishes like smoked trout with Gruyère potato cake, poached eggs, and tomatillo sauce.
Afternoon: Santa Fe has galleries, galleries, and more galleries, some with noteworthy cafés. Starting at the top of the hill of Canyon Road down to Paseo do Peralta is a half-mile strip of more than 80 galleries featuring a wide range of arts, designs, and folk crafts. Amid the galleries is El Farol, built in 1835, with outdoor porch seating perfect for people-watching. The restaurant serves Paella Valencia, saffron rice, shellfish, chorizo, and chicken in a family-style cazuela (a traditional Spanish cooking pot). El Farol also serves up entertainment most nights with Flamenco dancing and Latin music.
If you have time, try a side trip to nearby Chimayo, a pilgrimage town that has two shrines. One for the spiritual, The Santuario de Chimayo, a chapel from 1814, and the other home to New Mexico’s coveted heirloom Chimayo chiles, the perfect finale to a town with a soulful respect for eating and cooking.