Restau­rant Re­view

La Choza

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Alex Heard

My friend Dave is se­ri­ous about his love of red chile. This year on Good Fri­day we did the Chi­mayó pil­grim­age to­gether, and once he’d paid his re­spects at El Santuario, he bee­lined it to El Potrero Trad­ing Post, where he bought nearly 40 dol­lars’ worth of red chile for mak­ing sauce at home.

So of course I took Dave along on one of two re­cent trips to La Choza, a restau­rant that, like its down­town sis­ter in­sti­tu­tion, The Shed, serves both green and red chile but is es­pe­cially known for its red. He wasn’t dis­ap­pointed, and in the park­ing lot af­ter­ward he ex­pressed his feel­ings about restau­rants that do red chile right, in words that brought to mind A. A. Milne’s praise for Ken­neth Gra­hame’s The

Wind in the Wil­lows. Milne said the book is un­de­ni­ably great; if read­ers don’t agree, the onus is on them. “You may be wor­thy,” he wrote. “I don’t know. But it is you who are on trial.”

Dave was school­ing me in part be­cause I’d had lunch at La Choza sev­eral months ear­lier and didn’t think it was very good. And that day it hadn’t been, thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of medi­ocre, luke­warm food and a grumpy waiter. My two re­cent out­ings were a marked im­prove­ment, so the best anal­y­sis I can of­fer is a tru­ism that I sup­pose ap­plies to restau­rants ev­ery­where: con­sis­tency not guar­an­teed.

As many Santa Feans know, The Shed and La Choza were both cre­ated by Thorn­ton and Polly Carswell, na­tives of Illi­nois who came to Santa Fe in the late 1940s. The Shed is older. It was launched in Burro Al­ley in the sum­mer of 1953, in a small space where the Car­swells served up recipes in­spired by au­then­tic Santa Fe home cooking. The Shed was moved to its cur­rent lo­ca­tion on Palace Av­enue in the early 1960s; La Choza opened in 1983, in a build­ing on Alarid Street that had once been part of the Mercer Ranch.

La Choza’s menu is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from The Shed’s, but both of­fer an ex­ten­sive ar­ray of ap­pe­tiz­ers, soups, sal­ads, desserts, and en­trees that will stick with you, in­clud­ing (at La Choza) stuffed sopaip­il­las, blue-corn bur­ri­tos, gen­er­ous com­bi­na­tion plates, and a steak and en­chi­lada plat­ter. Both have cozy, col­or­ful in­te­ri­ors; La Choza’s dé­cor fea­tures a dis­tinc­tive pal­ette of pink, red, or­ange, laven­der, and blue.

Dave and I started with — what else? — mar­gar­i­tas, which La Choza does very well. It uses a blend of lime and lemon juice, and as the menu ad­vises, it’s tart. (If it’s too tart for you, tell your server, who will get the bar­tender to sweeten it.) Dave or­dered a clas­sic, a Sil­ver Coin, which is made with sil­ver or blanco tequila and Coin­treau and served over ice in a rim-salted glass. Mine, the Don de Oro, was sim­i­lar but used re­posado — tequila aged in oak for at least two months. Both were ex­cel­lent and van­ished in a hurry.

I tried the stuffed sopaip­illa, which sounds like some­thing a kid would or­der be­cause he thinks it might be dessert. But this was a sa­vory con­coc­tion, filled with spicy ground beef, cov­ered with red chile sauce and cheese, heated, and served with nice sides of beans and rice. Dave had a three-item com­bi­na­tion plate that fea­tured a chile rel­leno, a pork ta­male, and a cheese en­chi­lada. I agreed with him that La Choza’s red chile sauce is a cut above. It has tex­ture and com­plex­ity, so I think there’s more go­ing on than the stan­dard blend of red chile pow­der, oil, wa­ter, onion, and gar­lic.

We cooled things down with a piece of mocha cake — a com­bi­na­tion of cof­fee and choco­late mousse topped with whipped cream. Un­der­stand­ably, this dessert is a cher­ished mem­ory for many peo­ple who grew up here.

My next visit, also for din­ner, started with two more mar­gar­i­tas, in­clud­ing an in­ter­est­ing vari­a­tion called the San­gre de Cristo, made with sil­ver tequila and blood-or­ange juice. This time we had an ap­pe­tizer: the Trio, a bas­ket of tor­tilla chips with salsa, gua­camole, and a rich, spicy queso that I would eat again. I or­dered the chicken taquitos, and they were fine, though I think the chicken in­side the rolled, fried tor­tillas could use a lit­tle more spice. My dining com­pan­ion or­dered the carne adovada en­chi­lada, which he liked a lot, judg­ing by how fast he ate it. His tor­tilla, smoth­ered in red chile and cheese, cov­ered gen­er­ous chunks of pork that had been slow-cooked in chile caribe and other spices. We skipped dessert — no room — and wan­dered off feel­ing lucky to have a place like this as a handy stop.

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