The Pantry has been serving old-fashioned comfort food at the same Cerrillos Road location since 1948, and if you doubt its enduring popularity, show up on a Saturday morning at 9 or 10 and get in line. Your wait might last half an hour or more — which is OK because you’ll be that much hungrier when you’re seated at one of the restaurant’s homey wooden tables.
It’s fun to eat here in part because you’re connecting to a piece of Santa Fe history. The Pantry was created by the late George Eric Myers, a World War II veteran who had served in the Navy Construction Battalion as a metalworker. As his 2001 obituary in The Santa Fe New Mexican makes clear, Myers was a can-do man who drew on his many skills — “tailor, sheet-metal worker, gas-station owner, short-order cook, painter, gardener, and block layer” — to create a restaurant that has managed to endure decades of changing tastes. Not surprisingly, The Pantry is no place for dieters, food snobs, or quitters. It serves heavy portions off a large menu, and some of its recipes have been around for a long time. It’s famous for generous Santa Fe-style breakfasts that will conquer your appetite until dinnertime or the completion of a 10-mile hike, whichever comes first.
This doesn’t mean everything served at The Pantry is first-rate, and I doubt the cooks are really making most of their food from scratch, as the website implies. (“We have been serving quality fresh from scratch comfort food for over sixty years.”) If they are, that level of sourcing and care didn’t shine through during two recent meals, both of which took place in the restaurant’s back room, near a huge wall map of the Río Grande and Pecos River valleys. Up front, there’s a smaller dining area with cozy tables and stool seating at a vintage counter.
My first trip was for breakfast, and we went all out, ordering three substantial egg dishes, coffee, orange juice, biscuits and gravy, and buttermilk pancakes. The coffee and OJ were typical diner stuff, not terrible but definitely on the weak side. One of my companions was thrilled with his food choice: corned beef and two eggs, which he ordered poached. This was a winner, featuring a bed of spicy, skilletbrowned potatoes, lots of corned beef, chopped scallions, and eggs that had been poached just right. My friend said he’ll go back specifically to have this dish again.
I tried the huevos Consuelo, a variation on huevos rancheros that involves a secret sauce that appears to be unique to The Pantry. Nobody I asked could remember if it was invented by a woman from the old days named Consuelo or if the label is supposed to mean “comfort eggs.” The menu offers no clue as to what’s in it. To me, it tasted like shrimp cocktail sauce, with a distinct hint of horseradish. I found it jarring paired with eggs.
The third member of our group ordered a chile relleno omelet, which came with a chubby fried relleno in the middle. This was tasty and filling, though the eggs were a tad overcooked. The buttermilk pancakes we shared tasted generic and soaked up syrup like a sponge. The biscuits that came with the corned beef dish were not really biscuits at all. Biscuits are supposed to be either flaky, like pastry, or crumbly, like a scone. These had the dense, bready texture of cafeteria dinner rolls.
A second trip, for lunch, played out along similar lines: a mix of good and so-so. I didn’t know it until we got there, but my companion that day was a vegetarian. He was able to scrape by, but The Pantry is not a wise choice if you don’t eat meat. We split a Caesar salad that had nice ingredients — fresh chopped Romaine, plenty of grated cheese, and croutons — but suffered from a bland dressing. He liked his vegetarian sandwich well enough — it consisted of sliced sourdough bread, Swiss cheese, lettuce, roasted red bell peppers, tomato, and guacamole — but said he wouldn’t come back to order it again. The tomato was pale and tasteless, and the smear of guacamole was too skimpy to assert itself.
I had a six-ounce New York strip steak with cheese enchiladas. Both were fine, though the steak was, predictably, fairly tough — a thin strip that had gotten a carbony searing on a kitchen grill. The rice and beans that came with this meal were dry and dull, which seems to happen all too often with Santa Fe sides. The takeaway: The Pantry is a good place to get full, but you shouldn’t expect consistent greatness on the plate.