Moon over New Mex­ico

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Su­san Mead­ows

There’s a new moon ris­ing in down­town Santa Fe. Santa Luna Res­tau­rant opened in the late win­ter in Santa Fe Vil­lage (where Torino’s @ Home resided be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to Al­bu­querque). Chef-owner César Topete ran a res­tau­rant in his home­town of Guadala­jara and came to Santa Fe by way of Mon­ter­rey, Mex­ico, and Mi­ami, Florida. Topete is the for­mer man­ager of Los Mayas Restau­rante in town. Santa Luna’s menu re­flects his wan­der­ing ways by of­fer­ing a culi­nary tour of Mex­ico.

Fresh tor­tilla chips with a sub­tly spicy tomatillo salsa stave off star­va­tion while you dither over a daz­zling se­lec­tion of sal­ads, soups, ap­pe­tiz­ers,

an­to­ji­tos (snacks or small plates that are ac­tu­ally a sat­is­fy­ing meal), platos fuertes (up­scale main cour­ses), and an en­tire sec­tion de­voted to veg­e­tar­ian dishes. Topete uses some or­ganic in­gre­di­ents, no­tably in his sal­ads, and fresh nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents. “My chil­dren eat here,” he ex­plained. He plans on of­fer­ing even more ve­gan and veg­e­tar­ian dishes in the fu­ture and is seek­ing lo­cal or­ganic and nat­u­ral pro­duc­ers.

Com­pared to other choices on the menu, the soups and the Cae­sar salad are dis­ap­point­ing. Fla­vor­less cheese and char­ac­ter­less crou­tons de­tract from the fresh, crisp let­tuce and good Cae­sar dress­ing. The tor­tilla soup is fresh chicken broth with crispy tor­tilla strips served with a wedge of lime, avo­cado, and chipo­tle salsa on the side — a sort of broth tea with crunch. The dried-shrimp soup has an al­most Asian vibe, but it lacks zip.

Ser­vice can be ditzy: one day our sec­ond course ar­rived be­fore we fin­ished our first, and a lit­tle tug of war en­sued with the cheer­ful server in­tent on clear­ing dishes we hadn’t fin­ished. His good­hu­mored will­ing­ness to please, how­ever, won us over.

Head for the ap­pe­tiz­ers, an­to­ji­tos, and platos fuertes, in which Topete’s moon shines bright­est. The chi­laquiles are na­chos’ de­li­ciously evil twin — fresh-fried tor­tilla strips mixed with creamy re­fried beans and red tomato or green tomatillo salsa and topped with melted cheese for a dish that ranks (for those in need) as one of the great han­gover spe­cials. The chile en no­gada is an ap­pe­tizer rather than an an­to­jito, and I’ll be hav­ing reg­u­lar crav­ings for it: a green poblano chile stuffed with spicy ground beef and dried pineap­ple rest­ing un­der a cool, white ground-wal­nut-and-cream sauce dec­o­rated with juicy, bril­liant red pome­gran­ate seeds. The chile rel­leno is a poblano chile stuffed with unc­tu­ous cheese; fried in the sub­lime fluffy, egg-y bat­ter of the best rel­lenos; and cov­ered in a choice of sal­sas. The slightly sweet mole rojo de Oax­aca — with sub­tle hints of choco­late, spices, and nuts — adds a new di­men­sion to a dish you thought you knew. The mole verde de Pue­bla is a plump, juicy chicken breast bright­ened with an emer­ald purée of spinach, let­tuce, ci­lantro, pars­ley, green chile, al­monds, pump­kin seeds, sesame seeds, and pis­ta­chios. It’s com­plex, sub­tle, and spicy — rem­i­nis­cent of a green curry with­out co­conut. Ca­marones al ajillo, a spe­cialty from Baja Cal­i­for­nia, are grilled shrimp zesty with con­cen­trated lime, gar­lic, and red chile heat that will have you prac­tic­ing your high-school Span­ish:

Vamos a la playa! With Topete as your tour guide, you don’t want this Mex­i­can ad­ven­ture to end.

You might not have any room for dessert, as por­tions are gen­er­ous, but it’s hard to re­sist the but­tery wed­ding-cake cook­ies that have a light dust­ing of pow­dered sugar. On an­other day, there were two orange-laced sugar cook­ies baked that morn­ing. The cook­ies are a per­fect end­ing with a rough-edged but not bit­ter espresso. If cook­ies aren’t quite enough, a slice of the dense, cheesy, and creamy New York-style cheese­cake can sat­isfy two; the server said it’s made lo­cally by the woman who makes the tamales.

With com­plex Mex­i­can dishes sel­dom seen north of the border, pre­pared fresh and served with good-hearted gen­eros­ity in a pleas­ant down­town lo­ca­tion, Santa Luna might just leave you a lit­tle moon­struck. ◀

Check, please

Lunch for two at Santa Luna Res­tau­rant: Cup, tor­tilla soup...............................$ 3.95 Chile en no­gada.................................$ 8.95 Chile rel­leno ......................................$ 8.95 Chi­laquiles......................................... $ 6.95 Iced tea .............................................. $ 2.00 TO­TAL...............................................$30.80 (be­fore tax and tip)

Lunch for two, an­other visit: Cae­sar salad .......................................$ 7.95 Cup, dried-shrimp soup ....................$ 4.50 Mole verde de Pue­bla.........................$15.95 Ca­marones al ajillo ............................$18.50 Cheese­cake ........................................$ 4.50 TO­TAL...............................................$51.40 (be­fore tax and tip)

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