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Cuisine caliente

One thing is for sure, the food in Santa Fe is not for the timid. There’s its New Mexican heritage; Texas influence; and appreciation for native food, indigenous ingredients, and love of wild game, especially elk. And chiles will be used!

It will come as no surprise that the chile is New Mexico’s state vegetable and that its flag colors are red and green. In fact, in most restaurants, the first question you’ll be asked is “red or green?” Your server is asking about the type of chili you’d like on the side (and this isn’t a chuckwagon chili, it’s more of a salsa). If you can’t make up your mind between red or green, ask for Christmas! Get it?

The City Different

From its adobe-mission architecture to its rich cultural history, Santa Fe exudes a vibe you’ll not find many places. With a respectful nod to history and a smile toward the future, Santa Fe calls itself “The City Different” because of its welcoming nature. A 1928 fiesta program told visitors: “Be yourself, even if it includes synthetic cowboy clothes, motor goggles, and a camera.” The same advice for travelers here still stands. Come in jeans and rock a bolo tie even if your roots are in Milwaukee.

The city decided on its unified building style as far back as 1912. Founded in 1610, it’s the third-oldest city in the country (St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia, are older) and its founders realized that tourism was going to be key to keeping the city vibrant. A second ordinance was filed in 1957 again dictating the Pueblo style of architecture. The result is a melding of structure and nature, the modern buildings of Santa Fe looking like they have been there 400 years and the 400-year-old buildings kept up as if they were new. The ordinance included structure height, so most of Santa Fe is comprised of low-slung buildings, hugging the landscape. The adobe structures build upon themselves; rooms in restaurants and shops lead down narrow corridors to new spaces and visitors are apt to get lost in the maze of hallways. Ask for detailed instructions when looking for a bathroom!

Santa Fe Municipal Airport opened in 1941. It is home to some 200 based aircraft and offers commercial service through United Airlines to Denver and through American Airlines to Dallas/Fort Worth and Phoenix. There are three runways—Runway 2/20 is 8,366 feet long, Runway 15/33 is 6,316 feet long, and Runway 10/28 is 6,301 feet long. Elevation is 6,349 feet, and the airport is located nine miles from the city.

A taste of New Mexico

La Fonda on the Plaza is one of Santa Fe’s oldest hotels and sports a new rooftop bar and restraunt, the Bell Tower. Photo by Chris Rose.

So, what about those top TripAdvisor restaurants? No. 6 on the Fine Dining list is Geronimo, a French restaurant on Canyon Road. (Canyon Road is Santa Fe’s art district; winding streets invite you into eclectic art galleries, stores, and restaurants.) Geronimo is in a 1756 adobe house, but its new outdoor patio is COVID-19 friendly. Its chef definitely checks his New Mexico flavors, and elk is an often-requested specialty.

Sazón in downtown Santa Fe is No. 12 in fine dining, and it takes traditional Mexican food to incredible new heights. The décor is fabulous—a ceiling-to-floor painting of Frida Kahlo, sombreros, and twinkly star lamps dangling from the ceiling—and the chef is originally from Mexico City. The Ranch House is No. 23 on TripAdvisor’s Everyday Dining list. It’s a barbecue restaurant and has an outdoor patio.

La Fonda on the Plaza is one of Santa Fe’s oldest hotels and features period-style rooms of original timber beams and authentic tile. Its rooftop bar and restaurant are a wonderful place to see the city and watch a spectacular sunset.

With its overcrowded décor and myriad decorative homages to Mexican and Native American culture, the Cowgirl BBQ and Western Grill is a true barbecue joint. Its wood tables, flamboyant bar area, and festive outdoor seating promise diners an authentic Santa Fe experience. Cowgirl calls its barbecue “righteous” and with good reason: There’s 12-hour mesquite-smoked brisket, pork, and chicken served hot off the smoker. The restaurant’s five-pepper nachos with salsa diablo was ranked thirteenth in the nation by The Wall Street Journal and Cowgirl’s food has been featured on $40 a Day and Heat Seekers. You can also get a burger made with elk, buffalo, or venison.

The Relleno brothers are local New Mexico vintners who make wines with the chiles of their native state, bottling as Noisy Water Winery. Try tastings at the shop on San Francisco Street, especially the Besito Caliente white wine made with green chiles.

Noisy Water Winery uses native chiles in its wine making. Photo by Chris Rose.

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