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.