Let’s Pantry like it’s 1948
“The Pantry is the Greatest Restaurant on Earth,” according to a relatively static Facebook fan page created in 2007 by a former College of Santa Fe student. It’s a bold statement, but it’s one that should be considered seriously after surrendering to The Pantry’s transcendent treatment of stuffed French toast.
Since 1948, under various ownerships, a small, unassuming building on Cerrillos Road has been serving up the kind of comfort-food experience people usually equate with great home cookin’: generous portions, genuine smiles, and a casual air that encourages conversation among strangers. There are no flashy Food Network specials or glossy print-media spreads to guide people to The Pantry, and I find that refreshing, considering the restaurant’s long-running success. On any given morning, a line in front of the restaurant signals that whatever is happening indoors is probably worth the wait, and that’s all the advertising The Pantry should ever need. Now that the business is open for dinner, the blue sign towering over the adobe structure glimmers with yellow-tinted lights after dusk, enticing passersby with the promise of tasty, cozy endeavors. The Pantry delivers on that promise.
An early Saturday dinner for two in the front dining room meant we didn’t have to wait for a table, and while the restaurant was nearly empty, the staff was as upbeat and welcoming as it is when facing its usual Sunday-morning mob. Two requested glasses of tap water with lemon and two Negra Modelo beers served with chilled pint glasses and limes arrived
tout de suite, and we weren’t pressured to choose our dishes right away. We started with a Caesar salad and a garden salad, assuming, based on the price, that we would get a couple of small bowls. The salads were enormous, served on large oval plates spilling over with fresh ingredients. The garden salad — a simple combination of crisp iceberg and romaine lettuces topped with snappy radishes, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes — is big enough for two people as a starter. So, too, is the Caesar salad, which defies the laws of culinary authenticity by containing numerous wedges of tomato and cucumber. The dressing, while redolent of garlic and anchovy, lacked the lemony tang I have come to expect in this dish. The untouched lemon wedge on my water glass solved that problem, but the dressing was applied too generously to begin with, resulting in more of a Caesar stew.
The Fish Fry Platter my partner had is a Pantry favorite for a reason. Three huge planks of perfectly cooked, hand-dipped, beer-battered cod (not too greasy, seasoned well) arrived with crisp curly fries and a side of hot, well-seasoned and prepared vegetables, including paper-thin discs of summer squash. After a recent fish fry (more like fish burn) disaster at one of Santa Fe’s higher-end downtown establishments — where a similar dish was nearly twice the price and half the size — we felt that fate had brought us and this plate together.
My 3/4-inch-thick slice of house-made meatloaf was heavily spiced and maintained the perfect balance of juicy, tender interior and slightly sweet outer crust, all of it smothered in smooth, piping-hot brown gravy. The chunky mashed potatoes were pure comfort-food heaven. Extra gravy, please.
Breakfast at The Pantry has never let me down, but I take issue with its coffee. I’m no roasted-bean elitist, but during a recent morning visit, it was obvious my coffee mug and its contents had seen better days, if not decades. Cracked, chipped, and faded after years of being pummeled by forks and spoons, the container held something akin to coffee-flavored water. Please, retire that weary vessel — and vow to sail stronger caffeinated seas.
Making up for this disappointing pick-me-up was a perfectly cooked over-medium egg atop a corn tortilla (I expected a flour tortilla, as I ordered huevos rancheros) with tender pinto beans, super-spicy home fries, and some of the best red and green chile sauce Santa Fe has to offer. No cloying cheese on this dish, just pure, unadulterated New Mexico goodness. Same for my partner’s vegetarian two-egg breakfast burrito, smothered in Christmas, with well-cooked beans and potatoes. Besides a slightly heavy hand with the salt in the beans, both dishes were superb. And about that stuffed French toast: two thick pieces of Texas white bread, stuffed with cream cheese, bathed in egg batter, coated with corn flakes, cooked to golden brown, smothered in blueberry and strawberry sauces — I dare you to take a bite and not crack a smile. If you can’t manage that, chances are the well-trained floor staff will coax one out of you anyway.
Ratings range from 0 to 4 chiles. This reflects the reviewer’s experience with regard to food and drink, atmosphere, service, and value.