Restaurant Review Santa Fe Bar & Grill
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.