Yummy the hut

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Rob DeWalt

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.

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