The Zúñiga story
and sculptor Francisco Zúñiga (1912-1998) left his homeland in 1936, bound for Mexico City. As a boy, he apprenticed with his father, a sculptor; while in Mexico, his talents blossomed, and he eventually became one of that country’s eminent draftsmen, painters, and sculptors. In addition to crafting numerous public monuments, he taught for many decades at “La Esmeralda,” Mexico’s national art school.
Zúñiga is the namesake of a new-ish café in a prime, sunny location on the corner of East Alameda Street and Old Santa Fe Trail, a stone’s throw from the Loretto Chapel and the Santa Fe River. It’s the latest endeavor of chef Enrique Guerrero, who brought us Mangiamo Pronto!
Brasserie Zúñiga is misleadingly named. A brasserie by definition is an informal French restaurant that often serves beer and wine (the original brasseries were actually brewpubs). Zúñiga purports to offer dishes “with a Latin or Mexican twist,” does not serve alcohol, and more closely resembles your average café than any brasserie I’ve ever set foot in. Luckily for Guerrero, the restaurant world isn’t renowned for its linguistic precision.
Wide windows, French doors, vibrantly colorful walls, a shiny tin-tiled ceiling, and reproductions of works by Diego Rivera and Zúñiga combine to create a warm, cheerful space. Choose from the short breakfast or lunch menu on the wall-mounted blackboard, and place your order at the counter. Fetch your own water, napkins, and plastic flatware (the use of which seems annoyingly wasteful) from various counters. The tables aren’t outfitted with salt and pepper; when I requested them, I was handed what appeared to be the kitchen’s sole shaker and grinder.
About that Latin and Mexican “twist”— standard coffee drinks (latte, Americano, etc.) have Spanish names, and you can order hot chocolate of the Spanish and Mexican varieties (the latter is uber-rich and packs an earthy-spicy wallop of cinnamon and cloves). Meat and cheese are piled onto classic torta rolls for sandwiches, and tamales make an appearance at breakfast and lunch. Otherwise, Zúñiga tries to further the Latin theme by tossing around black beans (with an unseasoned tinnyness that screams “from a can!”) and bland corn kernels willy-nilly— in salads and scrambled eggs, for example.
The yogurt and granola cup is a generous, Starbucks“venti”-size serving of tangy yogurt and granola made by local high-school students (100 percent of the profits go to college scholarships). The to-go cup, also plastic, may strike you as a tad informal, but unless you’re seriously hungry, you’ll be glad for the portability. The breakfast burrito was largely forgettable— except for the black beans and corn.
While the tortilla soup managed to be simultaneously rich, bright, and earthy, tortilla strips were conspicuously absent. The green-chile clam chowder happily lacked the thin consistency of many chowders but was otherwise — even in spiciness— unremarkable. One daily soup, a seasonally appropriate butternut squash, had been eighty-sixed before noon.
Costa Rican painter
The impressive “nacho dog”— a gussied-up chili dog— features a plump, juicy frank robed in a bun and enjoying a therapeutic mud bath of mildly spicy chili. Bedecked with pickled jalapeños, grated cheddar, and squiggles of crema, it’s a messy, eat-with-a-knife-and-fork affair. Both types of tamales— sweetly porky red-chile and spicy green-chile cheese— were irresistible.
Zúñiga is a fine option if you’re the gambling type. The quality of the experience seems to depend on who’s working, since the person who takes the orders is also the cashier, barista, cook, and food runner. On one visit, the service was warm, cheerful, thoughtful, speedy, and accurate. Another day, we placed our orders, and the dishes arrived one at a time over the course of about 20 minutes. The first person to order received her food last, and though she asked for a spicy Caesar salad, she got a house salad instead. It and the house salad we deliberately ordered came with different dressings (neither of them Caesar), though we hadn’t been offered a choice. We ate our loaded turkey-and-cheese sandwich, though we’d asked for ham. I almost felt guilty reminding the young woman who looked relieved to be done prepping and schlepping our food that she’d forgotten our burrito.
The only other patron in the café on that day was a lone gentleman who just wanted a ham sandwich; though he had ordered before us, his lunch appeared after several of our dishes had been delivered. Maybe Zúñiga will beef up its employee roster for summer’s tourist influx; otherwise, I haven’t a clue how it will handle the rush.