Blue Corn Café Downtown
New Mexico diners have really benefited from the craftbrewing boom, which you can read all about in Jon C. Stott’s 2014 book, New Mexico Beer , a well-researched look at the history and output of every brewery in the state. But because the microbrew landscape is always changing, Stott’s roster already needs updates, which he provides on his blog (www.beerquestwest.com). For example, Red Door Brewing Company, which opened in Albuquerque last September, was too new to make it into his first edition.
One of Santa Fe’s older operations is the Blue Corn Café & Brewery, which was launched in 1997 and has a double footprint here. The beer is made at the southside location, at the corner of Cerrillos and Rodeo roads, which is also home to a large restaurant. The downtown café, on Water Street, occupies a colorful, sprawling, high-ceilinged space on the second floor of the Plaza Mercado. Both spots offer a variety of proprietary beers on tap, as well as wines and drinks from their full bar, including an extensive selection of margaritas. And both feature similar menus that are heavy on Northern New Mexico fare, hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, and miscellaneous pub-grub appetizers like hot wings, queso, and crab dip. Judging by two recent trips to the downtown restaurant, the beer is more reliable than the food, which is sometimes fine but in general is distressingly inconsistent.
For a dinner visit, I took a friend who’s an avid home brewer. He tried two Blue Corn creations and liked both: Toro Blanco, a white double IPA, and Wrinkled Kilt, a Scottishtype ale. Toro Blanco is a wheat beer, featuring the liberal use of hops, with a high alcohol content of 9.1 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). Compared with him, I’m a craft-beer tenderfoot, and my taste buds simply don’t respond well to bitter, hoppy beers. But I liked the Toro Blanco, which was balanced in a way that many hops-heavy beers are not. I also enjoyed the End of the Trail brown ale (5.5 percent ABV), a mild, smooth, and nutty brew that’s a good entry point for people who are new to these richer, heartier beers.
To accompany the suds, we started with a small plate of barbecued baby-back ribs and a bowl of green chile stew. Both were good. The ribs weren’t smoked, but you don’t expect that from a second-floor gastropub in the heart of downtown. Instead, they were braised in Blue Corn lager to the point of fall-off-the-bone tenderness, seared, and coated with honey-chipotle sauce. (You can also request a traditional tomato-based barbecue sauce.) The green chile stew was thick, medium-hot, and very green — there’s no tomato in this recipe, and apparently not much beef broth, which is often used to give the stew a soupier texture and browner hue. There was a generous amount of pork and potato, and both were perfectly cooked.
Our entrees arrived right on top of the appetizers — the servers at Blue Corn sometimes rush things — and they were markedly inferior. I ordered that day’s special, a carne adovada burrito. What I got was carne asada, which was tough and almost flavorless. It was wrapped inside a big, bland flour tortilla; inside and out, the other dominant elements were a just-average red chile sauce and heavy, oily melted cheese.
My friend ordered the New Mexico shepherd’s pie, an interesting concept that doesn’t quite work. A typical shepherd’s pie has for its bottom layer a savory mix of spiced meat and vegetables, and the whole thing has a roof of oven-browned mashed potatoes. In the Blue Corn variation, the top layer is melted cheese. Beneath that is a too-thin layer of mashed potatoes that was soggily mixed with ground beef, a tiny amount of green chile, and calabacitas that gave off excess water, diluting the flavor even more.
A second outing, for lunch, was beer-free — I was with a teenager, so we tried Blue Corn’s “special recipe” root beer and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Both were tasty, but the root beer needed more carbonation and the lemonade somehow lacked pulp. The food that followed was, as before, a high-low mix. The Black and Blue Burger — Angus beef, bacon, and blue cheese on a brioche bun — was great, but the Caesar salad I ordered with it was dry and dull. My friend liked the hot wings well enough, but I thought they tasted too much like liquid smoke. Our dessert, a dulce de leche cake, was a B. Shaped like a cupcake, it had the dense texture of a brownie and could have used more savory-sweet spice.
The takeaway? If you’re looking for a beer, appetizer, and burger, head on over. But, for now, this is an iffy place for a full-on meal.