review: beloved forest of crêpe paper…

Cafe Pasqual's
Cafe Pasqual’s
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cafe Pasqual’s might just be Santa Fe’s most beloved restaurant.

Now in its 24th year (I believe), James Beard Award-winning chef and owner Kathy Kagel’s corner cafe is packed from the moment it opens its doors for breakfast to the last table seated at night. It’s rare to find the restaurant without a line of people trailing around the corner waiting to get in.

Breakfast and – especially – brunch are the heavily favored meals here.

Mistakenly informed that the restaurant opened at 7.30 a.m., we arrived promptly to queue for the Sunday breakfast/brunch. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the restaurant doesn’t open until 8 a.m. on Sundays. We were first in line. In a matter of minutes, there was a trail of people longer than the number of seats available (I’d guestimate no more than thirty-five, total).

Cafe Pasqual's
Cafe Pasqual’s
Santa Fe, New Mexico

If you can’t manage to get a table for your party, consider grabbing whatever open seat(s) are available at the communal table in the center of the small restaurant (seats 12). I’ve been told that more than a few life-long relationships have been crafted there.

But the restaurant is a magical place – a happy world where good food amidst an enchanted forest of crêpe paper and ticker tape casts a rose-colored glow on all who enter.

The food here is great. In fact, it was easily one of the the two best meals I had on my recent trip to Santa Fe. The quality of the ingredients and the care in execution were notable.

Fresh Juices
Freshly squeezed juices
Cafe Pasqual’s

Choosing from Cafe Pasqual’s lengthy menu is difficult: everything appeals.

We three each settled on a plate and added a side order of the house-made chorizo. We also ordered two freshly squeezed juices: (organic) pomegranate and pineapple-ginger, which were fresh, thick, and good ($4.75). CLICK HERE to see all the photo from this meal.

Among our three dishes, I could not choose a favorite. My “Huevos Motulenos,” which consisted of eggs over-easy on corn tortillas with black beans, sauteed bananas, feta cheese, peas, roasted tomato-jalepeno salsa and green chile or tomatillo d’arbol salsa, had a hearty appeal ($13.75). Our server congratulated me on the choice – apparently, it’s become the restaurant’s signature breakfast/brunch plate. I can see why.

Huevos Motulenos
Cafe Pasqual’s

It looked like a mess – a thick layer of black beans completely covered with two eggs (I asked for my eggs sunny-side instead of over-easy – runny, warm yolk makes everything better), feta cheese, peas, and fried bananas, all of which was smothered by a pool of salsa and green chile sauce. A comical contrast, a small, neatly folded corn tortilla sat off to one side like a handkerchief.  People who have food compartmentalization issues would have a melt-down. But it was absolutely delicious. The combination of flavors was quite predictable in a good way, save the banana.

I wouldn’t necessarily object to the “Blue Corn Waffles” becoming an institutional favorite either.

Blue Corn Waffles
Blue Corn Waffles
Cafe Pasqual’s

Offered as a special that day, the two gridded squares came topped with spiced pecans and a side of pure maple syrup and a few twisted rashers of chile-sugared bacon. What I especially loved about these waffles was the slightly coarse texture of the crumb, which was flecked with blue cornmeal. The waffle was crisp on the outside and moist and sturdy on the inside. Yet, it was altogether light.

I’ve read the recipe for their cornmeal and green chile waffles in my copy of “Cooking with Cafe Pasqual’s.” This waffle was essentially that recipe minus the green chiles and substituting blue cornmeal -in equal parts – for yellow cornmeal.  And don’t forget the 1 1/2 sticks of butter per four servings; it’s essential.

I wished there were more pecans. The bacon was nice – but I failed to get the chile spice from it. It was not crispy, but rather jerky-like.  It wasn’t bad. But I expected it to be crispy.

Smoked Trout Hash
Smoked Trout Hash
Cafe Pasqual’s

In retrospect, we should have ordered something more traditional to New Mexico, like their polenta with red chiles. But I dream of smoked trout. So, naturally, when my dining companion asked me to order for her, nostalgia and food affinity found me ordering this – the first recipe I ever read in the “Cooking with Cafe Pasqual’s” cookbook (not to mention, the restaurant’s most popular item). I wanted a bite. [“Smoked Trout” with golden potato cake, a scatter of smoked trout, two eggs poached and tomatillo d’arbol salsa. ($15.75)]

The golden potato cake was crispy. The smoked trout was very good. And the tomatillo d’arbol salsa completed the overall Southwestern effect brilliantly. The only downer – and to me, a big downer: the eggs had been over-poached. No runny yolk. That put a serious damper on an otherwise great dish.

House-Made Chorizo
House-Made Chorizo
Cafe Pasqual’s

The “House-Made Chorizo” was seriously good($6.50). The texture was amazing: the meat was moist and soft as chenille. It was not terribly spicy, and it had a wonderfully sweet and round flavor.

I would not chose to decorate my house in the manner of Cafe Pasqual’s, but the restaurant manages to create a charm all its own. It is colorful.

The windows are papered over with a patchwork of the restaurant’s cookbook covers.  The ceiling is a festival unto itself, strung with chiles, banners, and random articles of clothing (if you look closely enough at my picture of the ceiling, you’ll see a dress hanging from the right-hand side of the frame). The “chandelier” hanging over the communal table, for example – a bouquet made from plastic bag clippings – is a brilliant feat of human imagineering.

Cafe Pasqual's
Cafe Pasqual’s
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Service was shockingly good. The staff here is clearly trained to be efficient and coordinated. With the high number of (potential) covers, I suppose it is to their advantage to keep things moving along.

All the same, it was not sloppy, or rushed, or impatient. Employees seemed dedicated and quite loyal to their cause and actually happy to be working and serving its customers. Our waitress had been a foreign exchange student (from Albania) in Santa Fe as a high school student. After university in Wisconsin, she returned to Santa Fe. She’s been working at Cafe Pasqual’s since. Given that she was being pulled in six different directions at once, she was surprisingly concerned about the progress of our meal, stopping to chat, asking which dishes we liked best, making sure our drinks were topped, and dropping the check promptly, as requested. If she was trying to win a larger-than-usual tip, she succeeded.

If I ever return to Santa Fe, Cafe Pasqual’s is certain to be a repeat.

Cafe Pasqual’s
Executive Chef/Owner Kathy Kagel
121 Don Gaspar
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
505.983.9340

~ by ulterior epicure on September 23, 2009.

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