Restau­rant Re­view Santa Fe Bar & Grill

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Alex Heard I

Though I’ve been in the DeVar­gas Cen­ter dozens of times, un­til re­cently I had never ducked into the Santa Fe Bar & Grill, and I was im­pressed by its spa­cious and at­trac­tive in­te­rior. Warm colors, mod­ern light­ing, dec­o­ra­tive pots, wall art, and high, ex­posed ceil­ings give the place a cozy, airy feel­ing. It’s lively, too, thanks in part to an open kitchen on the dining area’s east side and a 15-chair bar on the south side, which glows un­der an over­hang of stamped tin. This restau­rant is a good place to eat with a group, and it has a roomy pa­tio that will cer­tainly come into play again now that spring is here.

Over­all, the food isn’t as snazzy as the dé­cor. It’s not bad, but more of­ten than not, it’s merely av­er­age, usu­ally be­cause of some small-but-cru­cial kitchen mis­cue that wouldn’t be hard to fix. Tweaks would be worth the trou­ble, be­cause the menu of­fers quite a few in­ter­est­ing choices. There’s more seafood than you usu­ally see at a Santa Fe venue of this type, which com­bines New Mex­ico stan­dards with an eclec­tic as­sort­ment of dishes like grilled salmon, sea bass, and lemon chicken. Too of­ten, though, the de­scrip­tions on the menu are more ap­pe­tiz­ing than what ar­rives on your plate.

Dur­ing a re­cent din­ner visit, we chose two starters that sounded great but were dis­ap­point­ing: flash-fried corn­meal-coated Pa­cific oysters and three-cheese-stuffed jalapeños — also fried, this time in a beer bat­ter. The goal of flash fry­ing is a crunchy, golden crust, but th­ese oysters were oily and limp, and their color was more of a dingy brown. The cooks hadn’t coated them with any­thing like beaten egg or buttermilk be­fore sprin­kling them, spot­tily, with corn­meal. Ex­posed oys­ter meat doesn’t brown well in hot oil, so skip­ping that step is a mis­take. As for the jalapeños, they were large and heav­ily bat­tered with a dull, doughy mix that seemed more like a corn-dog coat­ing.

Our en­trees were a step up, but they ar­rived too soon, when we were only half­way through our ap­pe­tiz­ers. (The waiter didn’t seem to know that this is a bad move, an­nounc­ing with gusto, “I have some more food!”) The Santa Fe Cobb salad was good, a gen­er­ous mix of ro­maine let­tuce, chicken, ji­cama, boiled egg, cheese, ba­con, tomato, tor­tilla strips, and green chile. The shrimp tacos earned a split de­ci­sion from one of my friends, who would have liked more com­plex spic­ing on the shrimp to bal­ance the one fla­vor that came through strongly: black pep­per. But she liked both sides that ac­com­pa­nied her tacos: black beans (which had a rich un­der­cur­rent of broth and herbs) and a red cab­bage slaw (which con­tained raisins and was fin­ished with a light, oil-based dress­ing).

An­other friend tried the veg­e­tar­ian chile rel­leno and gob­bled it up with­out com­plaint. With this dish, she said, the bat­ter and fry­ing tech­nique seemed about right. For dessert, we shared the Mex­i­can flan; thumbs up all around. It was light and cus­tardy, with an am­ple top­ping of whipped cream, pine nuts, and caramel syrup.

A sec­ond meal, at lunchtime on a busy week­day, was a less pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence. We started with a cou­ple of beers — the bar of­fers a de­cent se­lec­tion of mi­cro­brews, mainly from New Mex­ico, Colorado, and Cal­i­for­nia — and an or­der of chips and queso fun­dido. The queso was a whiff: very floury and thick, not much cheese fla­vor, and no spicy kick. Once again, the en­trees came right on top of the ap­pe­tizer, but this time it hap­pened even faster. We were at a small two-per­son ta­ble, so things got pretty crowded.

I or­dered the brisket en­chi­ladas, fea­tur­ing meat that the menu claims is smoked “in-house.” Whether it was brisket or some­thing like flank steak I couldn’t tell, but it was tough, and it didn’t taste like it had been smoked at all. My friend or­dered the ro­tis­serie chicken, which was bet­ter — a full half-chicken that was nicely browned and juicy through­out, even in the breast. It could have used some herbs, though, and the fries and as­para­gus that came with it were both bland.

I also tried the ham­bur­gue­si­tas — a trio of 2-ounce mini-burg­ers made us­ing beef, pork, and turkey. They were yummy, and they’re avail­able on the bar menu. By them­selves, paired with a mi­cro­brew, th­ese would make for a good, fast lunch any­time.

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