Welcome to the neighborhood
Celebrations has been in business for more than 20 years— a long time by Santa Fe restaurant standards. And although it changed hands relatively recently, new owners Candi and Steve Markley have kept most of the old staff and recipes. Now in its second location, the old Bert’s La Taqueria spot in St. Michael’s Village, it seems to have settled into a popular neighborhood niche. The comfortable booth-lined room is full of light, there’s plenty of parking, the food is hearty, and the price is right.
Influences from Cajun, New Mexican, and down-home cooking all show up on the menu. For breakfast, house-made breads, cinnamon rolls, and biscuits grace the table.
A cup of French onion soup comes in a true cup size, a relief for those of us who like to have a little soup at lunch while saving room for something else. The soup, a broth rich with sweet and savory melted onions, is topped with small toasts and Swiss cheese.
The crispy crawfish Caesar salad, declared “classic” on the menu, is in fact a unique version dressed with no discernible garlic but plenty of spice; it’s topped with the teeniest curls of battered and fried crawfish.
The all-day-breakfast portion of the menu offers omelets, huevos rancheros, and eggs Benedict, all of which include salad. Omelets come with a variety of fillings, among them a chile relleno. The large hamburgers— and of course, the green-chile cheeseburger— looked tempting, but we didn’t try them. They come with a choice of fries or salad.
House specialties include crispy tempura-battered fish and chips and a chicken schnitzel. I was intrigued by but reluctant to order the potential grease bomb of a plate of fish and fries, yet the drama of two large pieces of curled golden filet of sole, which the waitress kept schlepping past our table, wore down my resistance. I’m happy to report that the fish is white, the batter is light, and the French fries are crisp.
The chicken schnitzel sports so thin a crust one might believe there wasn’t one. The chicken is surprisingly moist, even though it’s been pounded thin and cooked golden brown on the outside. It’s topped with a lettuce and tomato salad with Italian dressing and almost qualifies as a diet dish.
Among six Northern New Mexico plates, only two (enchiladas and chiles rellenos) really qualify as classic regional dishes; the others are newcomers. New Mexican or not, the avocado-and-mangostuffed quesadilla with chicken was delicious. Nicely browned on the outside, with just enough Monterey jack cheese to hold it together, it was highlighted by the pico de gallo that came on the side.
The chiles rellenos are a different story. Seemingly made ahead and reheated, they are sturdy and chewy, topped with thick cheese that hardened quickly into an unappetizing blanket. Since the kitchen goes to all the trouble of peeling and roasting the chiles, it would be nice if they took center stage. The good news is that the red and green chile sauces that we tried with them were both very good.
The bad news for Celebrations is the desserts: none were good enough to finish. Dessert should be more than something sweet at the end of the meal. It should be satisfying both in flavor and in texture, worth the potential increase in pant size. The flan was so overcooked that it had the mouth feel and flavor of scrambled eggs. The coarse-textured tres leches cake was drenched in a sticky-sweet liquid; it’s the worst version I’ve ever tasted. The pumpkin pie came with a gelatinous filling in a gray premade crust that managed to be both soggy and tough at the same time. The biggest disappointment was the chocolate cake, which was several-days stale and absolutely dry. No doubt delicious when fresh, it was a travesty served in such an elderly state. If business is slow, how about freezing it in pieces and thawing some each day?
My wish for Celebrations is that the new owners make a concerted effort to bring all the dishes up to the quality of their best items.