Taps and tapas
Few Santa Fe mainstays appeal to locals and visitors as much as El Farol does. With its authentic atmosphere, music, and chef Genovevo “Vevo” Rivera’s good food, it’s nice enough for a special occasion without being stuffy.
The bar seemingly hasn’t changed a hair in almost 40 years. Ghosts of old Santa Fe surely drift around the space while lively music and dancing make the dining room and bar come alive every night. Meanwhile, longtime owner David Salazar and manager Jeff Dixon, who is on the floor most evenings, maintain an exemplary level of consistency in food and service in the back dining rooms away from the bar.
It’s a challenge to choose from El Farol’s extensive tapas menu. However, the tapas platter gives diners a choice of eight hot or cold tapas at a bargain price. We made a meal of tapas one night and another night ordered appetizers and entrees. For the entree dinner, we started with a Mediterranean Caesar salad. The salad wasn’t huge, but it sufficed. Chopped romaine tossed with a mild dressing and dusted with Parmesan, our salad included white anchovies and Kalamata olives topped with a fried artichoke heart. It’s a creative version of the classic Caesar; the flavor of the white anchovies and the vinegary tang of the imported artichoke hearts are truly Spanish.
The rib-eye steak practically covered the plate, but it was tough and a little too rare for the mediumrare we ordered. Nicely caramelized on one side but dull on the other, it rested on a bed of mashed potatoes and was finished with a garnish of balsamic vinegar. The toughness made the steak hard to cut, and it slipped around on the potatoes. A Loriñon Crianza from La Rioja, a wine naturally well suited to tapas, held its own against the sweet and acid flavors of the vinegar.
A dazzlingly fresh salmon entree was as delicious as it was beautiful, served on a square, carmine-colored plate covered with bright-green sweet-and-sour spinach that had been lightly sautéed with golden raisins, red peppers, and pine nuts. (The spinach is also available as a tapa.) The salmon lay over a golden square of polenta flavored with Manchego cheese; everything on the plate was healthful and harmonious. The Martín Códax Albariño, an easy-drinking white that’s great with food, was perfect with this dish.
Our tapas dinner choices were excellent with the following exceptions: ceviche de atún, a dish of tuna cured in avocado and citrus juice, was unappealing in flavor and texture; cordero mediterraneo, listed as lamb chops with patatas bravas (potatoes with harissa, a spicy chile sauce common in Tunisian cuisine), was two lamb rib bones that had been whittled down to one tiny chop of two nibbles; and pinchos morunos — spiced pork on a skewer with harissa — came overcooked.
But the crunchy smoked-salmon potato cakes with caper aioli ( croquetas de salmón); saffron potato soup with halibut, shrimp, and mussels ( caldo pescado); spicy, plump sauteed garlic shrimp with lime and Madeira ( gambas al ajillo); and intensely flavored sautéed crimini mushrooms with chunks of Serrano ham and sherry ( setas) were all delicious. Pasta piñon
verde — penne pasta in poblano chile, Manchego, and piñon cream — was a super-creamy version of macaroni and cheese, full of grown-up flavors. Its richness made a small bowl plenty for two.
A fried half avocado, listed simply as aguacate on the menu, was full of flavor and texture contrasts, with slightly crunchy breading wrapped around perfectly creamy avocado highlighted by salsa cruda, balsamic vinegar, and salsa fresca.
We finished one dinner with Cabrales, a rightfully celebrated Spanish blue cheese. Honey and almonds nicely offset the blue’s muskiness. Other desserts at El Farol run the gamut from tiramisu to premium ice cream. Chocolate mousse with espresso and small chunks of chocolate topped with a dab of crème fraîche were enough to share and a nice end to the meal. Ordering the dessert platter of three fullportion desserts will take care of the most hedonistic sweets lovers. ◀