Yummy the hut
When I last visited La Choza — the unpretentious sister restaurant of the legendary downtown chile-head haven The Shed — the host and wait staff were inattentive, and the kitchen was off its game. Since then, the restaurant has undergone a positive transformation that extends to its food and service.
A small bar has been added, and more indoor seating is now available. The décor at La Choza (Spanish for “hut”) is a quirky but fun combination of Old Mexico, New Mexico, and Euro kitsch. I vow to make the charming patio a routine weekend roost during warmer weather, even if the occasional rumbling Rail Runner train passes nearby.
On a recent visit, dinner began with a warm greeting by the host. We were immediately seated at a requested table near the bar. Unlike The Shed, there is rarely a long wait for a table here. Our server promptly arrived with two ordered glasses of iced tap water with lemon and took our drink order. For my partner, a Negra Modelo on tap with a chilled glass and a lime. For me, a margarita made from a blend of Cointreau, sour mix, and Don Julio
reposado tequila. (Reposado is Spanish for “rested” — in this case, 100 percent blue agave tequila double distilled and aged for almost a year in oak bourbon barrels.) The sour mix was heavy-handed, and the drink was a little too sweet for my liking, but it fared better when paired with food and an extra squeeze of fresh lime.
Sadly, chips and salsa are no longer gratis, and some of the prices have jumped by as much as $2 per entree since I visited in 2006. Of course, somebody has to pay for the restaurant’s $295,000 full-liquor license, which was approved by the city council in 2008. But oh, that heavenly salsa: a heatseeking cooked version with flecks of chile and chile seeds, it’s among Santa Fe’s best. Try it when you can, but ask for fresh chips — they tend to taste old here. Pillowy sopaipillas, however, still hit the table for free with an entree purchase.
My combination plate of a crisp-shelled ground-beef taco, a chile relleno, and vegetable tamale was mostly a success. The taco was OK; standard fare and thankfully nongreasy. The relleno had great flavor, from the roasted chile to the gooey white cheese, but it arrived soggy beneath pools of red and green chile sauces. In my book, even under sauce, a relleno should retain at least some crispness. The tamale, while piping hot and delicious, was farmed-in from a local source, but an inquiry revealed that the chefs are about to move to house-made tamales. (They taste-tested a few of their creations last week, and tamales may not be available until they perfect their own recipe. Call ahead if tamales are your culinary weakness.)
Did I mention that La Choza’s house-made red chile is as fantastic as the famous version found at The Shed? The green chile is good, too. All chile here hails from Hatch, New Mexico, and red pods are ground fresh daily — but the green is made with pork, as are the pinto beans and posole. However, the kitchen will do everything it can to accommodate vegetarians. My partner’s blue-corn-cheese-enchilada plate was superb, a far cry from the globby cheese bomb we experienced years before.
A lunch serving of guacamole, salsa, and chips was fine (thankfully, the chips were fresh this time), but a small dish of underseasoned guac offered nothing special for the extra $3.50 it cost. A must: order a sopaipilla stuffed with refritos and tender, ambrosial pork adovada, smothered again in delicious, barely spicy (for us locals, anyway) red and green. Sadly, the scratched and chipped oval plate it was broiled on lessened the dish’s visual appeal.
My partner’s fish soft tacos blew us away — tender, flaky mahi mahi (the fish changes occasionally) served with sliced cabbage, a spicy sauce, ripe avocado, and a “tropical pico de gallo” made with diced fresh tomato, pineapple, jalapeño, lime juice, and cilantro. The accompanying Spanish rice was tender but too salty.
On both occasions, we left no room for dessert. Save a seat for me at the hut: I’ll be back in no time for house-made mocha cake and French apple pie.