No place like house
You won’t find many road-weary travelers tucking into plates of food at Harry’s Roadhouse, despite its proximity to the interstate and its perch just off Old Las Vegas Highway. Sure, you’ll spy a handful of tourists, lured by word of mouth and online buzz. But most of the seats are occupied by locals — neighborhood regulars or downtowners willing to make the trek to this quirky, slightly sophisticated version of the American roadhouse.
A colorful Southwestern eclecticism characterizes the interior. The lush rear gardens and sunset-view patio are prime places to relax with one of Harry’s popular margaritas, typically served up in a cocktail glass and accompanied, like milkshakes at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, by a little extra in a miniature stainless-steel shaker.
The menu is eclectic and includes sandwiches, burgers, salads, pastas, and regional favorites like enchiladas, quesadillas, tostadas, fish tacos, and a more-than-acceptable green chile stew. The wine selection is adequate, if unimaginative. Several beers are available on tap, including Santa Fe Brewing Company’s pale ale.
“Roadfood isn’t the work of a single creative genius,” say Jane and Michael Stern, authors of Roadfood. “It grows out of tradition and out of the brilliantly spiced … diversity that makes this nation such an eater’s adventure.” This is certainly true at Harry’s, which refuses to limit its menu to all-American or New Mexican classics. Offerings like smoky, yielding pork ribs or blackened catfish with tender collard greens and creamy, cheesy grits soothe homesick nonnative Santa Feans. Tasty scrapple, a golden oldie often described as “everything but the oink,” will appeal to displaced Pennsylvanians (like owner Harry Shapiro) as well as the nose-to-tail-cooking contingent.
Breakfast and comfort-food standards are the restaurant’s strengths. From huevos rancheros smothered in mild but complex red chile to cravingworthy buckwheat pancakes, morning meals at Harry’s are consistently hearty, full-flavored, and generous. Why is it so hard to get an over-medium egg in this town, though?
The all-natural-buffalo burger, served with a stack of golden-brown, hand-cut, skin-on fries, ranks for me among the best burgers in town. The wild mushroom pizza, which sports a surprisingly satisfying crispychewy thin crust, was better than pies I’ve had at some pizzerias in Santa Fe. Take the chef’s suggestion (and mine): add the prosciutto.
Specials, on the other hand, can miss the mark. One day’s chilaquiles — glorified nachos at best, and not very good ones at that — made me feel like a sucker. This “special” seemed designed by a kitchen with a surplus of tortilla chips. The sautéed “topping” of mushrooms, tangy cheese, and Swiss chard had a nice complex flavor, but I wanted about four times as much of it and half as many chips.
Another night’s special, a barramundi stew with posole, didn’t live up to its potential. I would gladly slurp the slightly spicy broth by the bowlful, but the fish’s crinkly skin looked unappealing and made the tender, flavorful meat difficult to eat. The garnishing dollop of pesto had developed a dry brown skin.
Most members of the staff balance friendliness with practicality. One night, however, when he wasn’t disappearing for lengthy periods of time, our server seemed more interested in hitting on cute female co-workers than in refilling water glasses, clearing dishes, or bringing a woman at a neighboring table her wine. It’s a shame to see a kitchen carefully construct, like a card tower, a delicious meal only to have the carelessly placed elbow of poor service bring it tumbling down.
Harry’s gets lots of accolades for its desserts, but in my years of dining there, I’ve had bad luck (a disastrous peach cobbler still stands out in my mind). However, the pecan pie I sampled recently — generous, not overly sugary, and chock-full of sweet meaty nuts — lived up to the hype and this Southern girl’s fond memories. Many a year and many a mile have come between me and my native soil, but for those few forkfuls, I felt like I was back home.