The restaurant business along the U.S. 285 corridor is tough. Sometimes convenience rules. But epicures in that neck of the woods will travel far for a superior meal. To convince them to save gas, time, and trouble, you’d better offer creative, widely appealing, well-prepared food in an inviting setting. Otherwise, they’ll leave you in their downtown-bound dust.
Since 2006, the “anchor” space at La Tienda shopping center (formerly the Village at Eldorado) has had revolving doors. Brumby’s Bar & Grill was the original tenant; after several renovations, though, it closed in early 2009. Another café moved in later that year but survived less than six months. The latest contender is La Plancha, a self-described “casual Latin grill” that opened in July.
Chef-owner Juan Carlos Pineda, a native Salvadoran, moved to Santa Fe in 1990 and, among other things, served as sous chef at the much-loved Old Mexico Grill. When there’s a lull in the kitchen at La Plancha, you might see him milling around, stopping at tables to say hello.
Walls in bright hues create a cheerful ambience, even if the décor is a little spartan and utilitarian. Staff members are friendly, attentive, knowledgeable, and efficient. Their kids might be doing homework at an unoccupied table; sometimes they’ll look up long enough to ask how your food is or to tell you to come back soon.
La Plancha serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner six days a week and breakfast and lunch on Sundays. The menu includes standards like pancakes, burritos, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and grilled steak and fish. New Mexican requisites are here, too: chips, salsa, guacamole, enchiladas, huevos rancheros, et al. But the specialties are Salvadoran.
The pupusa is the celebrity of Salvadoran cuisine — saucer-sized disks of sweet, nutty masa stuffed with small amounts of vegetables or meat. Top one with crisp curtido, a slawlike concoction that provides the perfect textural contrast to the soft corn dough and filling.
Pineda makes lovely little soft tacos — you’ll only need about three bites to polish one off — with tender handrolled tortillas. We filled some with moist, slightly smoky salmon, salsa fresca, and a dab of guacamole; the veggie versions — sautéed mushrooms and slightly crisp cubes of squash — were underseasoned and less impressive.
When the menu says “fresh,” Pineda means it: salads of vibrant, perky greens or salsa made of juicy ruby tomato dice, for example. Servings are generous, almost to a fault; emerald-green rice, refried black beans, roasted potatoes, and salsa fresca accompany many entrees. I only had room for dessert on one visit. Sadly, that night, I chose poorly: an unimpressive tres leches cake that tasted more like Sara Lee than Salvadoran sweet tooth.
Sometimes the kitchen suffers from fryer failure: the pupusas, empanadas, and plantains were always hot but sometimes excessively, unappetizingly greasy. Our strip steak was improperly cooked. And even a complex, compelling mole couldn’t redeem chicken tough as a shoe sole; fortunately, the second time around, the chicken was moist and tender.
Mornings feature perfectly serviceable hand-held breakfast burritos stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs, tender potatoes, creamy mellow cheese, and chile. If you have the time to sit down for breakfast, though, do. Given a whole plate to occupy, the burrito becomes a palette: a swath of chile, purple-black refried beans, golden roasted potatoes, glistening red and green bell peppers, and palegreen iceberg topped with bold salsa fresca.
The pambazo sandwich (a spin on the traditional Mexican version) is a sandwich only in a loose sense: airy eggs scrambled with mild, herbaceous sausage spill off a small chewy bolillo spread with smooth, earthy refritos that made me want to put beans on sandwiches more often. Engulfing it was a jumble of potatoes, grilled onions and peppers, avocado wedges, and more salsa fresca.
Try something new. Several dishes incorporate loroco, buds of a Central American flowering vine. Yuca (cassava root) is served both boiled and fried. Though I found it delicious in a starchy way, like great steak fries, it’s salty enough to make the ocean jealous. Don’t skip it if you’re salt-sensitive, though; ask the kitchen to “make it plain.”
If you find yourself in Eldorado, stop by La Plancha, whether you’re in the mood for Salvadoran food or not. If you live out that way, you may have a new standby. The food here is creative, appealing, and well prepared enough to keep you coming back.