Let’s Pantry like it’s 1948

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Rob DeWalt

“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.

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