Bucka­roo chow-down

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Lau­rel Glad­den I For The New Mex­i­can

A friend and I re­cently had din­ner at one of Santa Fe’s old-guard high-end restau­rants. The meal — which in­cluded a tee­ter­ing 1980s-style stacked dish and a fla­vor­less “foam” — was ex­pen­sive but medi­ocre. We dis­cussed the fact that some of the most cel­e­brated restau­rants in town, hav­ing es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion, end up rid­ing the name-recog­ni­tion wave. Din­ers will clamor to eat at them, even if the food isn’t ex­cep­tional, cre­ative, or con­sis­tent. “True so­phis­ti­ca­tion lies in ap­pre­ci­at­ing good things with­out re­gard for rep­u­ta­tion,” my dining com­pan­ion said. “I don’t care if I ever go back to that place. I’d rather eat street food.”

With that in mind, I plan to di­rect him to Bon­sai Asian Tacos, a bright red trailer wedged in front of the now-de­funct Pawn City, near the in­ter­sec­tion of Cer­ril­los Road and Ve­gas Verdes Drive. The food here isn’t what I would call sim­ple; it’s cre­ative, full-fla­vored, and ex­cit­ing with­out be­ing pre­ten­tious — no molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy in sight. The menu in­cludes a va­ri­ety of dishes, from a mango-av­o­cado-co­conut soup and a Healthy Belly salad to que­sadil­las, stir fries, and a burger. But the fo­cus here is — ob­vi­ously, de­servedly — tacos.

For the wide-reach­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the Asian taco we can prob­a­bly thank Roy Choi of Los An­ge­les’ Kogi, who used so­cial me­dia and great food to turn his Korean bar­be­cue en­ter­prise into a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. Th­ese days, even Betty Crocker and Woman’s Day of­fer recipes for Asian tacos. Santa Fe may be a lit­tle be­hind the times — the food truck craze is just gain­ing steam here, while in some ma­jor cities it has peaked — but I’m still glad Bon­sai showed up on the scene.

Food trucks, whether mo­bile or sta­tion­ary, have ob­vi­ous ap­peal for peo­ple in a hurry or for those who don’t re­quire a for­mal sit-down dining ex­pe­ri­ence. If you’re in the mood to en­joy your food al­fresco, though, and don’t mind a lit­tle ex­haust and traf­fic noise, Bon­sai of­fers a cou­ple of cute red ta­bles un­der a sim­ple wood arbor strung with globe lights.

We sam­pled three tacos — pulled pork, which of­fered the smok­i­ness and sweet­ness of good bar­be­cue; mild, silky tofu given a quick sear on the grid­dle; and crumbly, funky, nutty tem­peh. What­ever pro­tein you choose (bul­gogi beef, chicken, and salmon are also avail­able) gets folded up with a Napa cab­bage slaw, av­o­cado, and Bon­sai’s wildly ro­bust, ver­mil­lion colored sig­na­ture chile sauce. Each one has a well-rounded fla­vor pro­file that makes you not want to stop eat­ing. Even the ac­com­pa­ny­ing bean and corn salad — with a Wiz Khal­ifa ap­proved color pal­ette — is fresh-tast­ing, light, and stim­u­lat­ing.

We also tried the in­ex­pli­ca­bly mis­spelled “ex­trem” tacos — de­li­cious but mis­named. Maybe the “ex­trem­ity” refers to the meat choices — duck con­fit or gen­er­ous slabs of sweet, ten­der pork belly. Rings of crisp green ser­rano de­liver some heat, but oth­er­wise th­ese are less bold than Bon­sai’s regular tacos. Jum­bled with the meat are that Napa slaw, crisp pick­led cu­cum­bers, and a salty, sweet-tart tamarind-plum salsa I wanted to eat for­ever.

Per­haps in­spired by the Ital­ian arrab­bi­ata sauce, the “an­gry” chicken wings are doused in one that’s bright, fin­ger-stain­ing, and tongue-tin­gling. Chopped scal­lions of­fer some of onion’s veg­e­tal punch, while a dust­ing of sesame seeds pro­vides an in­trigu­ing nut­ti­ness that adds to the com­plex­ity. If you need some­thing cool, there’s a non­de­script “curry ranch” on the side.

All-Amer­i­can eaters, don’t fret: Bon­sai will make you a burger, a per­fectly ac­cept­able six-ounce beef patty on a su­per-soft white bun. The fla­vor­ful melted Jack cheese and the meat’s drippy juici­ness were mem­o­rable — but, un­like Bon­sai’s tacos, this isn’t worth a spe­cial trip to the south­side. Gor­geous turmeric-gold color aside, the Asian potato wedges were for­get­table.

Other dishes here lean to the healthy side. The Healthy Belly salad is a vi­brantly colored heap of juicy-crisp wa­ter­melon, tangy-sweet straw­ber­ries, quinoa, arugula, briny-milky feta crum­bles, and crunchy al­monds with a very light herbal dress­ing. The house stir-fry (one of three on the menu) man­ages to be sat­is­fy­ing and light. Our veggies in­cluded su­per-thin car­rot coins, deep-green broc­coli, greens, squash, but­tery-crunchy cashews, and tofu on barely toothy ker­nels of brown rice (you can choose a dif­fer­ent pro­tein and can opt for noodles in­stead of rice). The salty, sweet, and nutty gin­ger sauce was al­most glaze­like and ju­di­ciously ap­plied.

The only real “fail” was the miso que­sadilla. It sounded good in the­ory — chile-miso-dressed slaw sand­wiched with black-bean salad and Jack cheese be­tween gi­ant ten­der tor­tillas. Maybe this works bet­ter with meat or tofu, but if you add grilled veggies, as we did, the whole thing turns into a sloppy, soggy, wa­tery mess.

Much like Kogi has done, Bon­sai uses so­cial me­dia to pro­mote it­self and an­nounce new dishes and spe­cials (the re­cently re­vealed kim­chi shrimp tacos and deals for “ve­gan Mon­day,” for ex­am­ple). On Face­book, they de­scribe them­selves as of­fer­ing an “ac­ces­si­ble gourmet ex­pe­ri­ence.” When your restau­rant is perched un­der a sign ad­ver­tis­ing .22-cal­iber ammo at a pawn shop, you’re about as far from gourmet pre­ten­tion as you can get. I like a fine dining ex­pe­ri­ence as much as the next per­son, but I’ll take a well-made taco over fla­vor­less foam any day.

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